Giuliani Associates May Have Surveilled U.S. Ambassador, New Evidence Shows
The latest batch of House evidence before Trump’s impeachment trial begins includes explosive evidence linking the president’s lawyer and associates to the campaign to bully Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals.
Associates of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer appeared to physically, and perhaps electronically, surveil the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine last spring as they dialed up their pressure campaign on authorities in Kyiv, according to new evidence released by House Democrats on Tuesday.
The new revelations came on the eve of Wednesday’s House vote to hand over articles of impeachment to the Senate, and it could increase pressure on Republicans to call for further evidence and witness testimony as part of the president’s Senate trial, which is expected to get underway next week.
The trove of documents includes notes and messages provided to lawmakers by Lev Parnas, a Republican donor and associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Parnas was indicted in October for campaign finance violations.
The documents corroborate evidence that emerged during the House impeachment investigation that the president’s personal lawyer spearheaded a campaign to pressure officials in Ukraine to open probes into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s activities in Ukraine in a bid to aid Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Parnas’s handwritten notes on stationary from the Ritz-Carlton Vienna lay out the conspiracy targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the bluntest terms: “get Zalensky to Announce to announce that the Biden case will Be Investigated.”
But the documents also contain a number of new threads for lawmakers to pull on, such as the involvement of Robert F. Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate from Connecticut who made headlines last year over his obscene tweets about former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
Hyde’s involvement in the Ukraine pressure campaign was not previously known, but a string of text messages exchanged with Parnas suggest that he may have had then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch under physical, and possibly electronic, surveillance.
“She’s talked to three people. Her phone is off. Computer is off,” he wrote to Parnas in March last year, later adding “They will let me know when she’s on the move.” Parnas replied to say, “Perfect.” Later in the same conversation, Hyde said, “They are willing to help if we/you would like a price. … Guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money … what I was told.”
A former State Department official who worked with Yovanovitch told Foreign Policy that they felt sick when they read the messages, “I didn’t think I had the capacity to be shocked any more and yet here we are.”
The revelations were “Not just insane, but deeply chilling,” said a current State Department official.
“Needless to say, the notion that American citizens and others were monitoring Ambassador Yovanovitch’s movements for unknown purposes is disturbing,” Lawrence S. Robbins, Yovanovitch’s attorney, said in a statement to CNN. “We trust that the appropriate authorities will conduct an investigation to determine what happened.”
During Yovanovitch’s testimony on Nov. 15, 2019, Hyde sent a tweet calling the former ambassador a “traitor” and a “scumbag.” Hyde told NBC News that he had been drinking when he sent the text messages to Parnas.
For U.S. diplomats serving abroad, a degree of surveillance by foreign powers is expected, said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine whose own phone calls were tapped and then leaked by Russian intelligence services. If the claims made in the messages aren’t just empty boasting, it would be “outrageous” for an ambassador to be surveilled by an American citizen, Herbst said.
In another series of messages exchanged between Parnas and then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who served as a source for many of Giuliani’s unevidenced claims about the Bidens, Lutsenko pushed for the ambassador to be removed.
“It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam—you are bringing into question all my allegations. Including about B.” It’s not clear whether B is a reference to Biden or Burisma, the gas company where the junior Biden sat on the board.
Trump’s claims that Giuliani was not acting on his behalf in Ukraine have long strained credulity, as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified before Congress that the president directed senior U.S. officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine matters in a meeting in the oval office last May.
A letter from Giuliani to Zelensky, contained in the tranche of documents released Tuesday, raises further questions about Trump’s knowledge of the pressure campaign. In the May 10, 2019, letter, Giuliani requests a personal meeting in Ukraine with Zelensky, who was president-elect at the time, and states that he was acting “In my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.” The letter was sent the day after the New York Times reported that Giuliani was planning to visit Ukraine to push the new government to open investigations that could help Trump’s re-election.
“All of this new evidence confirms what we already know: the president and his associates pressured Ukrainian officials to announce investigations that would benefit the president politically,” the chairs of four committees in the Democratic-controlled House said in a statement released alongside the documents.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But amid reports of falling morale among the ranks of foreign service officers, the State Department will be under pressure to respond to news that a serving ambassador may have been surveilled by Americans working with allies of the president’s personal lawyer.
Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on European issues during the Trump administration and served with Yovanovitch, said the latest round of revelations will further sap morale at the State Department as it finds itself at the center of the impeachment investigation.
“It’s difficult to believe morale could get any lower at the State Department, but there’s no doubt our diplomats will view the targeting of a U.S. ambassador by the cronies of her own political leadership as a shocking and unprecedented attack against the Foreign Service,” she said.
“These revelations cry out for a response from Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo, who despite promises to bring back his department’s swagger, has failed even to protect his employees from these appalling attacks.”
As a congressman, Pompeo made his name as an ostensible defender of U.S. diplomats during the House investigation of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi, peppering his predecessor Hillary Clinton with questions about security arrangements on the ground.
Pompeo has also defended the Jan. 3 U.S. airstrike on the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, which pushed the United States and Iran to the brink of war, after Trump said that the United States had received information that the Quds Force leader was plotting imminent attacks on four U.S. embassies.
After a lull during the winter break, the release of the documents dialed up the drama on the impeachment investigation as the House is due to hand over impeachment articles to the Senate. On Wednesday morning, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is expected to name the House managers, Democrats who will effectively serve as the prosecution during the Senate trial. Later in the day, the House is set to vote on the resolution to appoint the managers and to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he expects the Senate trial will get underway as early as next Tuesday.
McConnell has not yet revealed the procedures that will govern the trial, only the third of its kind in U.S. history, but he has said he plans to follow the blueprint set by the impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton in 1999, which unfolded over five dramatic weeks and saw senators, who act as a jury, sit for hearings six days a week.
During the Clinton trial, witnesses were deposed in closed-door videotaped sessions. While Democrats have been keen to call new witnesses, it’s unclear whether they will be able to persuade four Republicans to join with them in a vote to do so.
Press access is likely to be more limited than during the Clinton impeachment trial, according to a letter of complaint sent to Senate leaders from an organization that represents Capitol Hill reporters. Capitol security officials are weighing measures that could prohibit the use of electronics inside the Senate, limiting the ability of reporters to cover the trial in full as well as restrictions to their movements, which could prevent journalists from putting their questions to Senators as they leave the chamber.
“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age,” said the statement from the Standing Committee of Correspondents.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack