The Morning Jolt

White House

Post-Debate Dramatics

President Donald Trump (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A full menu today: the uncomfortable truths revealed by President Trump’s interactions with Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren saved their drama for after the debate, while Tom Steyer is oblivious; an advertising slogan with an unfortunate implication that is populist catnip; and an underappreciated congressional candidate.

What Kind of President Trusts Two Shady Ukrainians from South Florida?

Could even the most ardent fans of President Trump concede that he is constantly hiring the wrong people and listening to the wrong people?

As noted many times, there were proper and official channels for the U.S. government to investigate anything involving the Bidens and Ukraine. Trump didn’t use those proper and official channels. He used Rudy Giuliani, who apparently emphasized from the very beginning to the Ukrainians that he was acting as the president’s personal lawyer — not a representative of the administration or the U.S. government, and thus not on any official inquiry to sniff out corruption or violations of U.S. laws. He wrote this letter May 10. Giuliani is such a spectacularly loose-lipped figure, that the day before he wrote the letter, he specifically laid out in the New York Times what he was doing:

Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.

One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.

You would like to think that even if the president of the United States decided to go through with a back-channel inquiry to the Ukrainian government to see if he could get them to investigate the Bidens, he would take one look at Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. These guys look like the most oafish henchmen since Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt went after Nancy Kerrigan. You wouldn’t trust these guys to pick up a take-out lunch order, much less use them to execute a secret and politically sensitive request of a foreign government.”

Just a minimum of due diligence would have alerted the president that Giuliani had not recruited the A-Team:

Reports by McClatchy and the Miami Herald showed that Fruman is an exporter of luxury goods and Parnas is a former stockbroker who has left a long trail of debts in Florida and beyond.

Parnas has been sued repeatedly over unpaid debts and has faced eviction from several properties, federal and state court records show. During his career as a securities broker, he worked for three brokerages expelled from the industry by regulators.

Before that, Parnas “worked in an unspecified capacity” for Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Who’s Firtash?

Firtash, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, is battling extradition by U.S. authorities on bribery charges from Vienna, where he has lived for five years.

Federal prosecutors in Illinois said in court papers in 2017 that Firtash was an “upper-echelon” associate of Russian organized crime. He was indicted in 2013 and charged with bribing Indian officials for access to titanium mines. Firtash has denied any wrongdoing.

Firtash was “financing” the activities of Parnas and Fruman, the source familiar with their business dealings said. The source did not detail their specific work for the oligarch or how much money he had paid them and over what period.

An honest question: How did these guys get cleared by the U.S. Secret Service to meet with the president and vice president inside the White House?

Parnas and Fruman posed like well-connected Ukrainian movers and shakers, and Giuliani and Trump appeared to have bought into the image. Once again, they didn’t do their homework:

Fruman and Parnas don’t appear to be big names in Ukraine, despite the spate of reports in the U.S. about their efforts there.

John Herbst, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 — and since 2014 has headed a program on Ukraine and the broader Eurasia region for the think tank Atlantic Council — said he doesn’t recall anything about the pair.

“I have never heard their name in Ukraine until this issue arose. They are not well-connected Ukrainians,” Herbst said in an interview.

There’s some evidence that these guys managed to ingratiate themselves with Giuliani and Trump by telling them what they wanted to hear, that there was some sort of secret evidence about Biden corruption in Ukraine, and that only they knew how to get it revealed:

Parnas told the Miami Herald last month that Ukraine’s government has access to information on alleged wrongdoing by Biden and his son and other U.S. officials overseas — but that the U.S. government had shown little interest in receiving it through official channels. Parnas said his and Fruman’s friendship with Giuliani was their avenue to get the information into the Trump administration’s hands.

“I got certain information and I thought it was my duty to hand it over,” he told the Miami Herald on Sept. 26.

Last night, Parnas appeared on Rachel Maddow’s program and more or less admitted that he and his partner were just a pair of schmoes from South Florida. They had no special connections or avenues of influence in Ukraine. The only reason any government officials in Ukraine were willing to meet with them and listen to them was because they said they were acting on behalf of the American president.

President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president. I have no intent, I have no reason to speak to any of these officials. I mean, they have no reason to speak to me. Why would President Zelenskiy’s inner circle or Minister Avakov or all these people or President Poroshenko meet with me? Who am I? They were told to meet with me. And that’s the secret that they’re trying to keep. I was on the ground doing their work.

Parnas pretty much said exactly what supporters of impeachment wanted to hear: “It was never about corruption. It was never — it was strictly about Burisma, which included Hunter Biden and Joe Biden.”

You’re probably going to hear a lot of Trump’s defenders attacking the credibility of Parnas now. He is facing indictments for conspiring to violate the ban on foreign donations, conspiring to make contributions in connection with federal elections in the names of others, and falsifying records. Indeed, he has every reason to tell Democrats, the media, and prosecutors exactly what they want to hear. And as the interview wore on, Parnas’s story seemed almost a little too perfectly tailored to the wishes of an MSNBC primetime audience. He told Maddow that Vice President Mike Pence knew about everything they were doing, and Attorney General William Barr had to know all of it as well. Parnas and Fruman are obviously good at telling people exactly what they want to hear; you see how far they got doing that to Giuliani and Trump.

You’ll hear the Trump defenders pointing to Parnas’s shady past and contend he’s an unreliable witness. And they’re right. But then the question is . . . why the heck these two guys were entrusted to handle all of this by Trump and Giuliani? If these guys are so obviously, glaringly, flashing-red-warning-sign untrustworthy, why did the president trust them?

Democrats are going to push for impeachment, contending the inquiry into Hunter Biden was improper and a partisan witch hunt, that Trump jeopardized the security of Ukraine, and that he stretched executive privilege beyond all recognition by refusing to cooperate with any of the House’s inquiries. They’re overlooking a much simpler and more persuasive argument. A president who entrusts sensitive duties to the likes of Parnas and Fruman is incapable of recognizing when someone it trying to con him — even an amateur and buffoonish attempt to fool him. And that’s a really dangerous person to have in the Oval Office.

Tom Steyer Just Wants to Say ‘Hi’

The Tuesday night Democratic debate saved up all the drama and comedy for right after it ended and the applause started. CNN aired the recording of what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said to each other, right after the debate. The short video is worth watching, if you haven’t already. Warren is indignant, Sanders is exasperated, and then Tom Steyer clumsily steps in, delightfully oblivious:

Warren: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders: “What?”

Warren: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders: “You know, let’s not do it right now. You want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.”

Warren: “Any time.”

Sanders: “You called me a liar. You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that this is an extremely tense moment between two friends and allies. Well, anyone except Tom Steyer, who’s been standing there since the first ‘lets’ not do that right now,’ and who really wants to shake hands with Sanders, no matter what else is going on, and who’s determined to get that handshake, come hell or high water:

Tom Steyer: “I don’t want to get in the middle of it. I just want to say hi, Bernie.”

Sanders:”Yeah — good. OK.”

The Vermont senator is hilariously dismissive in that last exchange; clearly still frustrated with Warren, he absolutely no interest in interacting with Steyer any more than he has to, and face it, for a lot of us, we’ve never felt more like Sanders in our lives.

At least Steyer seems to have a sense of humor about it. Last night, after CNN aired the tape, he tweeted, “Just want to say hi, America.”

‘Who Are the Ad Wizards Who Came Up with This One?’

Surely, Politico means well when they put together a newsletter focusing exclusively on women leaders, and they chose to call it “Women Rule.” They promote it with a hashtag, “#RuleWithUs.” And they’ll be attending and covering the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, the annual gathering of the world’s political and economic elites. Our Jay Nordlinger described it as “a fairytale setting,” complete with heads of state, Middle Eastern royalty, the most powerful CEOs of multinational conglomerates, media moguls, a handful of celebrities — this is the one percent of the one percent, or maybe even the one percent of the one percent of the one percent.

I just wonder if the promotional slogan “#RuleWithUs at Davos” ends up with a connotation they didn’t intend.

ADDENDUM: Robert F. Hyde is the Giuliani associate who told Parnas in text messages that he was in contact with a “private security” team near the American embassy in Kyiv and suggested that he had U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch under physical and electronic surveillance, with messages like, “it’s confirmed we have a person inside.” In May, police were called to Trump’s Doral resort in Miami-Dade County for a “male in distress fearing for his life,” according to a police report from the incident. According to police records, Hyde was involuntarily detained for concern for his mental health, and shortly thereafter a restraining order was filed against him for harassment.

Hyde is also a candidate for Congress in Connecticut’s Fifth District.

You know who is also running for Congress in that district as a Republican? Former federal prosecutor David X. Sullivan, who brings a lot of excellent qualities to the table. Until recently, we didn’t fully appreciate Sullivan’s excellent quality of “not being Robert Hyde.”

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