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With an impeachment trial looming, new evidence that Trump sought personal benefit in Ukraine

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/15/2020 Philip Bump
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If one were simply to read the transcript, as President Trump has insisted we do, the point made obvious in new documents released by the House Intelligence Committee would be apparent.

In that transcript — the rough transcript of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — Trump cajoles his counterpart to start investigations focused on former vice president Joe Biden and an unfounded theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Zelensky agrees to the probes with alacrity, in part, no doubt, because it had already been made clear to his team that agreement was a necessary criterion for a much-sought meeting with Trump at the White House. To move the probes forward, Trump then suggests that Zelensky work with two people: Attorney General William P. Barr, head of the Justice Department — and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.

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The inclusion of Giuliani in the conversation has long made it hard for Trump to argue that he was seeking Zelensky’s aid only insofar as it would benefit the United States generally. When he asked Zelensky to “do us a favor,” he has argued, he meant “us” as in the United States. That he then suggested Zelensky work with Giuliani, who is not an employee of the United States, and that his request in that specific case focused on his efforts to undermine the investigation into Russian interference that he saw as a cloud over his presidency make it particularly hard to take Trump’s claims at face value.

Giuliani has been central to the campaign to pressure Ukraine for some time. When a group of officials who’d attended Zelensky’s inauguration in May met with the president to brief him on the event, it was Giuliani whom Trump insisted they work with on Ukraine. It was Giuliani who then made explicit a quid pro quo related to Trump’s desired investigations, according to Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Giuliani pushed Trump’s team to get Zelensky’s administration to announce the same specific investigations that Trump raised on his call — all while working for Trump, not the United States.

He made clear early in the process that his focus was his client and not his country. When he spoke with the New York Times before a planned trip to Ukraine in May, he told the paper that he was “asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

a close up of a piece of paper: Document from Lev Parnas, a former associate of President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, released by the House investigators. (House Intelligence Committee) Document from Lev Parnas, a former associate of President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, released by the House investigators. (House Intelligence Committee)

The “investigation they were already doing” was an investigation into a company for which Biden’s son worked. That inquiry is at the center of the impeachment allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine for information that might undercut the political viability of Biden, who then and now was the leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination this year. Giuliani’s presentation of the status of the purported investigation is itself questionable, but the point is how he characterized his work to the Times: of benefit to Trump and, who knows, maybe the country as well.

Enter Lev Parnas.

Parnas worked for Giuliani for years, helping Trump’s attorney in Ukraine, including by doing translations. Parnas was asked for documents by House investigators as they began to dig into Trump’s interactions with Ukraine last year but he refused to comply. When he was subsequently arrested and charged with campaign finance violations, Parnas became more amenable to offering assistance and turned over material to House Democrats. On Tuesday evening, some of that material was made public by the House Intelligence Committee.

The material included the letter below, sent by Giuliani to Zelensky shortly before the Ukrainian president’s inauguration — and shortly before Giuliani’s planned trip to Ukraine. In the letter, Giuliani is explicit about the role he plays.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Document from Lev Parnas, a former associate of President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, released by the House investigators. (House Intelligence Committee) Document from Lev Parnas, a former associate of President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, released by the House investigators. (House Intelligence Committee)

“I am private counsel to President Donald J. Trump,” he writes. “Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as President of the United States.” He goes on to explain that this seemingly unusual situation in fact isn’t unusual at all — clarifying for readers in the present moment just how odd Zelensky might have found the letter.

“I have a more specific request,” Giuliani writes later, echoing Trump’s language two months later in his phone call. “In my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent, I request a meeting with you” during his planned visit. (After the Times reported on his planned trip, he canceled it.)

Asked about Giuliani’s planned trip in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in November, the president denied awareness of what his lawyer was up to.

“I know that he was going to go to Ukraine and I think he canceled the trip. But Rudy has other clients, other than me,” Trump said. Asked if Giuliani was going to Ukraine on his behalf to try to find negative information about Biden, Trump said, “No, I didn’t direct him, but he is a warrior, he is a warrior.”

Giuliani told the Times he was going for Trump. He told Zelensky he was going for Trump. But in November, once the impeachment inquiry was well underway, Trump dismissed the idea.

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As for the part about focusing on Biden, there’s a note written on a Vienna Ritz-Carlton notepad that was included in the material Parnas gave to House investigators.

“Get Zalensky [sic] to Annouce [sic] that the Biden case will be Investigated,” it reads — suggesting that Parnas, the presumed author of the note, understood one key goal of interactions with the Ukrainian president.

Who gave Parnas that direction? He worked with Giuliani as well as a husband-wife team of lawyers — Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova. Later notes on the same pad mention Toensing and diGenova in a way that suggests they weren’t the ones offering instruction. (The documents turned over to investigators include another interesting attorney-related message: authorization from the president, through his attorney Jay Sekulow, for Parnas to be represented by one of Trump’s former attorneys, John Dowd.)

There are a lot of questions about those notes. When were they written? What was the context? What did Parnas actually do?

But there aren’t many questions about the letter from Giuliani to Zelensky. In that letter, Giuliani is explicit about whom he works for and the extent to which Trump was aware of his efforts. While he didn’t tell Zelensky what the purpose of the meeting was, he did tell the Times: the investigation that Parnas’s note refers to as the “Biden case.”

It’s right there in the rough transcript, too, of course. But with Trump’s impeachment trial expected to begin in the Senate next week, it’s worth noting that the transcript isn’t the only evidence that undercuts Trump’s assertions.

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