WASHINGTON — Lev Parnas said he arrived for his May meeting in Kyiv with a top aide to Ukraine’s president-elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, with a clear directive from Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer: Unless Zelensky announced an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, one of Trump’s possible 2020 rivals, his country’s relationship with the United States would sour.
Among the consequences he threatened, Parnas said in interviews this week: that Vice President Mike Pence’s expected attendance at Zelensky’s inauguration later that month — a high-level recognition that the Ukrainians urgently sought — would be canceled.
When Ukrainians were unresponsive, Parnas said he relayed the bad news to Giuliani. "OK, they'll see," the president's lawyer responded, Parnas told MSNBC.
The very next day, Trump instructed Pence to cancel his trip to Ukraine for Zelensky's inauguration, according to a whistleblower complaint and congressional testimony from one of Pence's own aides.
The rapid sequence of events in mid-May marks one of the earliest known moments when Guiliani’s shadow campaign to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit Trump inextricably merged with official U.S. foreign policy — and, if Parnas’ account is accurate, appeared to move the levers of the American government. In the process, the vice president was dangled as a bargaining chip — perhaps unwittingly — to exert leverage over a foreign government, according to Parnas, a Soviet-born businessman who functioned as Giuliani’s fixer in Ukraine.
Trump's supporters have attacked Parnas' credibility, noting that he is under indictment in New York for campaign finance violations. In a statement, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called Parnas "a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison."
Giuliani, who denied to the New York Times last year that he directed Parnas to deliver a warning to the Ukrainians, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. The aide to Zelensky who met with Parnas, Serhiy Shefir, and an attorney for Igor Fruman, another Giuliani associate in attendance, have also disputed aspects of Parnas' account.
However, text messages and other documents released by the House this week, as well as congressional testimony during the impeachment inquiry, corroborate the timeline that Parnas detailed in interviews with MSNBC and CNN about the episode — and show how a rogue operation engineered by Giuliani began subsuming official U.S. policy.
The takeover did not happen immediately. Beginning in 2018, Giuliani and two associates — Parnas and Fruman — spent months pursuing material in Ukraine to benefit Trump and agitating for the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whose removal was sought by a top Ukrainian prosecutor who promised to help Trump in exchange.
By the spring of 2019, Giuliani’s campaign finally seemed to be paying dividends. Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled back to the United States in late April. And Ukrainian government officials appeared willing to cooperate with Trump’s lawyer — particularly Yuri Lutsenko, at the time Ukraine’s top prosecutor and a close political ally of then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But when Zelensky — a comedian and political neophyte — trounced Poroshenko in the final round of Ukraine’s presidential election in late April, Giuliani’s project was thrown into doubt.
In early May, as Zelensky prepared for his inauguration later that month, Giuliani tried to make inroads with the new Ukrainian leadership and planned a trip to Kyiv with the hope of meeting the president-elect. The former mayor told the Times on May 9 he was planning to ask Zelensky, among other things, to investigate the involvement of Biden's son on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Giuliani asserted that his mission to Ukraine was a personal one, being undertaken to assist the president’s personal defense in the special counsel investigation — even though that probe had concluded.
"This isn't foreign policy," Giuliani told the Times.
In a letter dated May 10, sent through Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Giuliani asked Zelensky for that meeting so he could make a "specific request" in his "capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent." He didn't mention Biden by name.
After Giuliani's travel plans became public and prompted an outcry, he scrapped the trip. Giuliani went on Fox News the night of May 10 and said he wasn't going to Kyiv because Zelensky was surrounded by enemies of Trump and enemies of the United States. The comments irked Zelensky's team in Kyiv, which wanted to secure Trump's support but saw his personal lawyer calling them enemies on cable television.
At that point, Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in an interview that aired Wednesday, he was tapped by Giuliani to convey “a very harsh message” — that the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship “would be sour” unless the Zelensky administration announced the investigations Giuliani wanted.
"The most important was the announcement of the Biden investigation," he said. Without that, "Pence would not show up" at Zelensky's inauguration.
While Giuliani emphasized his Ukraine trip was intended for Trump’s personal benefit, Parnas said he went to Ukraine empowered to invoke core powers of the U.S. government — military aid, official travel, a White House visit — to force the Ukrainians’ hand.
Messages exchanged on WhatsApp between Parnas and Shefir, the top Zelensky aide, show that the Giuliani associate introduced himself to the Ukrainian hours later on May 11.
“I am mayor Rudy Giuliani’s friend please call me,” he wrote in Russian.
As his calling card, Parnas sent a copy of the letter Giuliani had sent to Zelensky to prove his association.
Shefir responded and agreed to meet Parnas on May 12 at an upscale restaurant in Kyiv.
Parnas told Maddow that the meeting was tense. He said Shefir told him he would have to get back to Parnas with an answer to his demand. But when Parnas tried to message the Ukrainian aide that night for an update, he said he got no response.
The text messages show that evening, Parnas messaged Shefir saying, "Serhiy good evening is there any news!"
Shefir didn't respond to any of Parnas' text messages after that, according to the cache of messages released by House Democrats.
In a statement to the Times in November, Shefir did not directly address what was discussed at the meeting, but said that the Zelensky team did not view Parnas and Fruman, who accompanied him, as official representatives who "could speak on behalf of the U.S. government."
On the night of May 12, Parnas said, he called Giuliani and told him things were a "no-go."
Pence's top Russia adviser, Jennifer Williams, said she was surprised the following morning to receive a call from an assistant to Pence's chief of staff, informing her that preliminary plans for Pence to travel to Ukraine for the inauguration had been canceled, she later testified to Congress.
Williams said the news was curious, because preparations were already underway. She testified that when she asked about the sudden change, she was told that Trump had directed Pence to skip the event — but not the reason why.
“My understanding from my colleague — and, again, I wasn’t there for the conversation — was that the president asked the vice president not to attend,” Williams testified.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv were also taken aback by the change in plans, according to congressional witnesses.
David Holmes, an official in the U.S. Embassy, testified that he, too, had been told that Pence would be leading the delegation for Zelensky's inauguration. Later, he said he was informed that the White House had "whittled down an initial proposed list for the official delegation to the inauguration from over a dozen individuals to just five," led by then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Zelensky's team had expected Pence to come because Biden led the delegation at Poroshenko's inauguration five years earlier. The Ukrainians were hoping Pence would attend to show continuity in U.S. support for Ukraine.
Marc Short, Pence's chief of staff, said that Parnas' account is not credible and should not be believed.
"This is very simple: Lev Parnas is under a multi-count indictment and will say anything to anybody who will listen in hopes of staying out of prison," he said in a statement. "It's no surprise that only the liberal media is listening to him."
Asked about Parnas by reporters as he traveled through Florida on Thursday, Pence said, "I don't know the guy." The vice president also dismissed as "completely false" the speculation by Parnas that Pence was aware of the goal to get Zelensky to announce an investigation into Biden.
A senior administration official said that Pence and his team had no knowledge of the meeting between Parnas and Shefir, nor was the vice president's office aware of any conversation between Giuliani and Trump immediately before Trump's directive to Pence that he skip Zelensky's inauguration.
The official would not share what reason Trump gave Pence for canceling his trip, citing the White House's long-standing policy to not comment on private conversations between the president and the vice president.
The Ukrainians desperately needed Trump’s support as they faced a continuing war with Russian-backed proxies in the east, which since 2014 has left some 13,000 people dead. They were particularly eager to ensure a White House visit for Zelensky — as a potent symbol of the United States’ support for Ukraine and its untested new president in its ongoing struggle with powerful Russia.
Weeks earlier, Zelensky had appeared to be on good footing with the Americans. In an April 21 phone call, Trump congratulate him on winning Ukraine's presidency in a warm conversation.
"I think you will do a great job," Trump told Zelensky, according to a transcript of the call released by the White House. "I have many friends from Ukraine who know you and like you."
After that call, Williams, the Pence aide, said she received an email from Pence's chief of staff, informing her that Trump had asked Pence to attend the Ukrainian president's inauguration. And on April 23, Pence congratulated Zelensky in a phone call of his own. According to Williams, who was listening to the call, Zelensky invited Pence to attend his inauguration and Pence accepted, provided the dates worked out.
The Ukrainians appeared startled by the sudden rebuff, Parnas said.
“Now they get word, because obviously, when Pence cancels, they get word that Pence is not coming,” he told MSNBC. “So, now, they realize that what I — what I was telling them was true.”
By the end of May, Trump's attitude toward Ukraine and Zelensky was hostile.
During a meeting in the Oval Office, he told Perry, then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and then-U. S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland - three top government officials he had tasked with leading U.S. policy toward Ukraine - that he was skeptical that Ukraine was committed to anti-corruption efforts, according to congressional testimony.
Sondland testified that Trump also griped that Ukrainians had "tried to take him down" in the 2016 election.
As the group pushed Trump to invite Zelensky to the White House, Sondland said, the president made it clear who was driving the U.S. posture toward Ukraine: “He just kept saying: Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy.”