November 22, 2019 (Friday)

Today began with evidence that impeachment is getting to Trump. He launched an epic 53-minute tirade this morning on a phone call to Fox and Friends, in which he ranted against Marie Yovanovitch for not hanging up his portrait in the embassy (her lawyers promptly said this was untrue), and said that he fired FBI Director James Comey to protect himself (a crime, by the way). The hosts were clearly uncomfortable, but they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Then things got quiet enough that I took it easy, then spent a couple of hours cooking an elaborate dinner, and then settled in early to write an informative letter over here on how media uses data to sell political ads. But it was not to be. I opened up Twitter just as news broke that Lev Parnas, the recently indicted political operative, is willing to testify before Congress to say that he helped Republican Congressman Devin Nunes meet with the corrupt former Ukraine prosecutor Victor Shokin in Austria last December. The purpose of their meeting: to talk about smearing the Bidens. Shokin is the prosecutor Biden helped to oust, and Nunes is currently the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

You all are going to have to wait for that piece on media, money, and politics. Tonight, I'd better unpack this news.

First off, remember that Parnas is an untrustworthy reporter: he is himself under indictment, is mad that Trump has pretended not to know him, and is undoubtedly eager to cut a deal. But that eagerness cuts both ways. If he is trying to make a deal, he would likely not claim something that he couldn’t prove. We’ll see.

Anyway, the story, dropped by CNN, is this:

Lev Parnas was an associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani….

Wait. We have another breaking story. Tonight, a little after 10:30, the State Department released documents under the Freedom of Information Act, after being sued for them. The documents suggest that Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani worked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Oval Office, to smear our own US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

Oh, lordy.

OK. That implicates Pompeo in the Ukraine scandal, but since Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Russia expert Fiona Hill had already both implicated him in their testimony, it is not as big as the original story I was unrolling.

So, back to it: … Lev Parnas is an American citizen who was born in Ukraine in 1972, when it was part of the USSR, and he has worked with Giuliani on Ukraine matters. He and his associate Igor Fruman were arrested in October as they were trying to flee the country to travel to Vienna, Austria, likely to meet with Ukrainian oligarch Dymytro Firtash. Firtash is believed to be involved with Russian organized crime, and was once a partner of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. Parnas and Fruman were arrested as they tried to leave the United States because they have been charged with funneling money from Russian oligarchs to American political figures (including House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy). They are currently under house arrest.

Through his lawyer, Parnas says he is willing to testify that after the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives last year, Devin Nunes traveled to Vienna to meet with dismissed Ukraine prosecutor Victor Shokin. He timed it during the congressional recess so he would not have to report it to his Democratic colleagues. About that time, according to Parnas, he and Nunes began to work together, and Parnas put Nunes in touch with Ukrainians who could help him smear Biden.

We already knew that Parnas and Shokin were working with Giuliani to do the same thing, starting in about November 2018 (again, right after the Republicans lost the midterm elections), because Giuliani said so on national TV (!). Their efforts are the origin of the rumor that Joe Biden got Shokin fired to keep him from investigating Hunter Biden (there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either of the Bidens). The story they were pushing was that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that hacked the 2016 election, and that Burisma and the Bidens were corrupt and must be investigated. That should sound familiar.

But it gets worse. Parnas alleges that he and Nunes, or Nunes’s proxy, met several times a week in the Trump Hotel, along with Giuliani, and John Solomon, former reporter for The Hill, who pushed anti-Yovanovitch stories and whose reporting is now under review. Also included were married attorneys Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, the Trump defenders who are often on Fox News Channel programs. They represent Firtash, who needs American lawyers because he is wanted in America for bribery and racketeering. He is currently in Vienna, Austria—where an awful lot of things seem to happen-- challenging his extradition (although, honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t have better lawyers than these two, and is simply employing them as a way to have inroads with Trump). Also at those meetings was Derek Harvey, who works for Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee, and who, according to Parnas, was understood to be Nunes’s agent.

This is the first time a member of Congress has been implicated in the Ukraine scandal. But Nunes has been hovering on the edges. At the very beginning of Trump’s term, he appeared to be working with the White House when, as chair of the House Intelligence Committee, he took directly to Trump what he said was evidence the Obama administration was spying on the Trump campaign. Those days were more innocent than these (which is saying something); he was forced to give a public apology for cutting ranking member Adam Schiff out of access to the information he claimed to have.

His blurring of lines with the White House continues. When Trump blurted out a few weeks ago that he had no idea who Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was even though Vindman was on the National Security Council, Trump was apparently confused because he believed that the Ukraine expert on the National Security Council was not Vindman but rather Kashyap Patel (known as Kash), a Nunes staffer who joined the White House in February and had no Ukraine experience at all. Patel had been muscling Vindman out of meetings and talking to Trump about Ukraine in Vindman’s place, seemingly with Nunes’s backing.

The story that Nunes might have been working to push disinformation to affect the 2016 election is terribly troubling, especially because Nunes is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, he was the chairman. His finger is on the pulse of our national security.

Nunes refused to comment on this CNN story. (Or, rather, he commented: “I don't talk to you in this lifetime or the next lifetime,” to a CNN reporter. “At any time…. On any question.”) Giuliani refused to comment. DiGenova and Victoria Toensing refused to comment. Harvey refused to comment. Solomon confirmed that the meetings happened, and said he was only there as a journalist to report a story.

If this story is true, it troubles me on another level, too. You all know I think Trump’s effort to win an election by poisoning the media with a smear against the Bidens was simply a replay of what happened in 2016. If so… why did Nunes have the same instinct?