WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump says he doesn't know the two Soviet-born associates of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who were indicted on charges of campaign finance violation Thursday.
"I don't know those gentlemen," Trump said Thursday, referring to Ukrainian-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman. "Now, it's possible I have a picture with them, because I have a picture with everybody."
In fact, records paint a much closer relationship, highlighting how the two Florida-based businessmen bought their way to the top echelons of the Republican party with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to pro-Trump Republican campaigns.
As early as March 2018, Fruman attended a donor meeting with Trump at the president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Fruman told the Russian news site ForumDaily. About 200 prospective donors to Trump's 2020 reelection bid were in attendance.
"In the 2016 elections, I made donations to Trump's election campaign fund, and now, a year after taking over the presidency, Trump decided it was right again to invite us and turn to his supporters," Fruman boasted.
Fruman and Parnas were not just giving money to Republican campaigns. The two staunch Trump supporters eventually became foot soldiers in Giuliani's campaign to dig up political dirt on Trump's Democratic rivals. As part of that effort, they also sought to glean information for a largely debunked theory that Ukraine officials tried to rig the 2016 election in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton, contrary to the U.S. intelligence community's finding that Russia worked behind the scenes to help Trump win the election.
"They were directly dealing with Giuliani, and Giuliani was directly dealing with the president," said Kenneth McCallion, a former federal prosecutor and defense lawyer for Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In the days since House Democrats announced an impeachment inquiry into Trump, Fruman and Parnas have emerged as figures of immense interest to investigators. Although not mentioned by name, they are referenced in the whistleblower complaint at the heart of the inquiry.
On Thursday, shortly after prosecutors announced the indictment of Fruman and Parnas along with two others, three House of Representative committees leading the inquiry subpoenaed the two men for documents related to the investigation.
Moreover, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified Friday that Trump had pressured the State Department to force her out after losing confidence in her, blamed Giuliani and his two associates for undermining her with false assertions. She suggested that Parnas and Fruman might have felt financially threatened by her anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, The Washington Post reported.
"The fact that these two individuals were working with Giuliani and Ukrainian government officials to alter U.S. policy in that country will obviously be relevant to the impeachment investigation," said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, an independent watchdog that last year filed a formal complaint about the illegal donations with the Federal Election Commission.
Reacting to news that Giuliani is being investigated for possible lobbying violations, Trump tweeted, "So now they are after the legendary "crime buster" and greatest Mayor in the history of NYC, Rudy Giuliani. He may seem a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he is also a great guy and wonderful lawyer."
John Dowd, a former Trump lawyer who represents Parnas and Fruman, declined to comment.
For years, Parnas, 47, and Fruman, 53, lived in relative obscurity in South Florida as they dabbled in a series of not always successful business ventures. Official records show Parnas set up and then dissolved nearly two dozen businesses in Florida in recent years, all while fighting a long-running, half-million-dollar lawsuit brought by a former partner in a botched movie venture. Fruman, though born in Belarus, ran small businesses in Ukraine.
Then in early 2018, the two men set out on a mission that landed them in jail last week.
Beginning in March 2018, Fruman and Parnas, who, according to prosecutors, had little prior history of giving money to politicians, began attending political fundraisers in Florida and elsewhere and making large campaign contributions to Republican candidates.
Using Global Energy Producers, a shell corporation created to disguise their contributions, they funneled $325,000 to a pro-Trump super political action committee (PAC), $50,000 to another PAC supporting the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida, and tens of thousands of dollars to numerous other campaigns in violation of federal election laws.
In all, the duo pumped nearly a half-million dollars into Republican political committees, illegally donated money that Republican officials now say they want to donate to charity.
Parnas and Fruman have defended their contributions, saying the donations were their own money, spent in support of a legitimate company they set up to export American liquefied natural gas to Ukraine. However, in a separate scheme, prosecutors say they used $1 million wired by a Russian investor for a recreational marijuana venture to fund political campaigns.
Whatever its source, the money opened the doors for the two operators, leading to valuable face time with the likes of Giuliani, DeSantis, former Republican House member Pete Sessions of Texas and eventually Trump.
"They sought political influence not only to advance their own financial interests but to advance the political interests of at least one foreign official - a Ukrainian government official who sought the dismissal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said, without disclosing the official's identity.
In early May, nearly two months after the Mar-a-Lago donor meeting with Trump, Fruman met with Trump again. This time, he and Parnas participated in a "closed-door meeting" with Trump at the White House, Fruman told another Russian news site called New Times shortly after the meeting.
"Only eight people" attended it, he said.
According to Fruman, the conversation centered on "preparations for the victory in the midterm elections to the U.S. Congress in November 2018."
On social media, Fruman and Parnas flaunted their close ties to Trump and his inner circle.
On May 1, Parnas posted a photo of himself with Trump with the words "incredible dinner, and even better conversation." On May 21, he posted a photo showing the two partners at a "power breakfast" at the Beverley Hills Polo Lounge with Donald Trump Jr. and Tommy Hicks Jr., the co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
"They were extremely successful with the contribution of a super PAC, as we've all seen now," McCallion, the former federal prosecutor, said. "Mr. Trump might not remember it, but the nice smiling photographs of them with the president in the White House and certainly with Don Jr. and other senior Republicans at power breakfasts and other meetings."
For Giuliani, who had been brought on board by Trump to defend him in the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling, Fruman's and Parnas' Ukrainian ties were assets to leverage in his very public attempts to discredit the probe and dish up damaging information about Trump's rivals.
In an interview with National Public Radio last month, Parnas said he met Giuliani
through Republican political functions two years ago and quickly struck up a friendship.
"We're good friends. We spend time together," Parnas said. "We play golf together."
It's not clear how and when Fruman met Giuliani. Giuliani has described both men as his "clients."
Then last year, Parnas said in the interview, he started receiving information from sources in Ukraine about the Bidens and alleged meddling in U.S. elections by Ukraine, and funneled it to Giuliani.
As the president's personal lawyer, Giuliani, a former prosecutor, ran a dual-track mission of rebutting charges of collusion and obstruction against Trump while chasing leads to support the president's assertion that the probe was a Democratic "witch hunt" to undo his presidency.
Served as fixers
In the latter effort, Parnas and Fruman served as Giuliani's fixers, facilitating meetings with current and former Ukrainian officials while traveling to Ukraine to press the government to investigate the Bidens.
The effort in support of Giuliani's mission, which they claim was self-funded, gained steam in late 2018 and remained their main preoccupation over the following months.
In late 2018, Parnas arranged a Skype call between Giuliani and Viktor Shokin, the former prosecutor who claims to have been fired in 2016 at the urging of Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time and the Obama administration's point man on Ukrainian policy.
In January and February, Parnas and Fruman met with Shokin's successor, Alexander Lutsenko, and with whom they say they discussed the corruption allegations against the Bidens.
More meetings followed throughout the spring and summer.
But the effort wasn't always successful. In April, the duo traveled to Israel to meet with Ukrainian tycoon Igor Kolomoisky to seek his help in arranging a meeting between Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the new president of Ukraine, and Giuliani, but Kolomoisky, according to Ukrainian media, rebuffed the request.