Security Brief

Is Lev Parnas a Reliable Impeachment Witness?

New evidence from a key player sheds more light on Trump’s role in pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

Rudy Giuliani, U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, and his associate Lev Parnas arrive for the funeral of late U.S. President George H.W. Bush in Washington on Dec. 5, 2018.
Rudy Giuliani, U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, and his associate Lev Parnas arrive for the funeral of late U.S. President George H.W. Bush in Washington on Dec. 5, 2018. ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: New revelations emerge in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, the U.S. Navy debates a plan to increase its fleet, and Russian President Vladimir Putin carves out a new path to stay in power.

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Trump “Knew Exactly What Was Going On”

Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, threw new bombshells into the impeachment saga with a series of television interviews on Wednesday implicating the president in pressuring Ukraine to investigate a Democratic rival to help his reelection campaign—against U.S. interests.

The efforts were “all about 2020,” Parnas told CNN, referring to Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, including withholding U.S. military aid from the country. “President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” he told MSNBC in another interview.

Is Parnas a reliable witness? That’s a top question for lawmakers as the next phase of Trump’s impeachment begins. Parnas’s checkered past casts doubt on his reliability, something that Republicans will likely play up. “These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a Thursday statement.

Parnas and another Giuliani associate, Igor Fruman, were charged by federal prosecutors with making $325,000 in illegal donations to a super PAC for Trump. Parnas previously ran an insurance company called Fraud Guarantee (no joke) that didn’t appear to have any clients, but paid Giuliani $500,000 in advising fees. Since his arrest, Parnas has reversed his support for Trump.

The State Department is silent. The Democrat-controlled House released documents this week that included cryptic text messages between Parnas and a Republican congressional candidate, Robert Hyde, that appeared to indicate that former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch—who was ousted from her job after a smear campaign by Giuliani—was being surveilled. Democratic lawmakers are demanding answers from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Parnas dismissed those claims as the ramblings of a “drunk.” It’s difficult to assess whether they are outlandish: The State Department has refused to comment on whether the Yovanovitch was being followed. Its silence on the matter, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s refusal to publicly defend Yovanovitch or other department employees dragged into the impeachment fight, have left some current and former diplomats fuming.

Ukraine opens an investigation. But not into the Bidens, as Trump had hoped. Ukraine’s interior ministry announced Thursday it is opening an investigation into whether Yovanovitch was being surveilled by Giuliani associates, BuzzFeed News reports.

What We’re Watching 

What will become of the Iran nuclear deal? This week, European powers triggered the Iran nuclear deal’s dispute mechanism, likely spelling the end of the agreement. Since the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has resumed production of enriched uranium—a key step on the path toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran argues that the United States’ withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of sanctions meant that it no longer had to abide by its own commitments. In a desperate effort to save the deal, France, Germany, and Britain officially alleged that Iran breached the deal, a case which will be referred to a joint commission including the other signatories.

If they cannot resolve the issue after 15 days, it will eventually be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which could reimpose U.N. sanctions lifted under the deal.

Navy debates 355 ships. Despite Trump’s campaign to increase the U.S. Navy’s fleet from 293 ships to 355, its initial budget proposal for 2021 would actually shrink the force by three ships over the next five years. The proposal may just be the opening salvo in a protracted budget battle: The White House immediately pushed back, ordering the Navy to submit a new plan to get to the promised 355 ships by 2030. The Navy’s top admiral said this week that he would be happy to increase the size of the fleet—if the service gets more money. (Meanwhile, Trump is diverting billions of dollars allocated for defense spending for his border wall.)

Russia’s constitutional shake-up. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday proposed sweeping changes to the constitution, a move that appears to be designed to ensure he retains power after reaching his presidential term limit in 2024. The reforms would weaken the powers of the presidency and strengthen the prime minister. In a shocking move, after Putin voiced his intentions, the entire Russian government resigned—allowing Putin to nominate a new prime minister and choose a new cabinet. FP’s Reid Standish reports on the calculations behind the surprising move from Moscow.

U.S. to decrease troop presence in West Africa. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced in December that there would be a significant drawdown—if not a total withdrawal—of U.S. troops from West Africa as Washington increasingly focuses its attention and resources on countering the threats posed by China and Russia. On Tuesday, U.S. allies in West Africa and France criticized the decision. The planned drawdown is part of a larger realignment of U.S. forces to address the rise of China.

Movers and Shakers

Space Force swearing in. On Tuesday, Gen. John Raymond was sworn in as the first Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force, in a ceremony conducted by Vice President Mike Pence. The appointment makes Raymond the highest ranking official in the new Space Force, as well as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Prior to his Space Force appointment, Raymond spent 35 years in the Air Force.

New ambassador appointments. This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced several ambassador nominations: Todd Chapman as ambassador to Brazil, Dorothy Shea as ambassador to Lebanon, and Donald Wright as ambassador to Tanzania. Trump’s State Department has struggled for years with scores of empty posts, but that started turning around last year, as FP’s Robbie Gramer reported.

Foreign Policy Recommends

Generation Gulag. Coda Story has produced an incredible reporting project that compiles first-hand accounts of those who survived harrowing conditions in the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps. Though it comes decades after the gulag system was broken up, the Russian government now seems keen to rewrite and whitewash its history. No one has ever been held accountable for running the gulag system, which incarcerated up to 28 million people.

Odds and Ends

A dire warning. You shouldn’t squeeze inside your musical instrument case to be smuggled out of a country. That’s what Yamaha Corporation is warning its customers, after former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn reportedly escaped house arrest in Japan concealed in a large musical instrument case. “We won’t mention the reason, but there have been many tweets about climbing inside large musical instrument cases. A warning after any unfortunate accident would be too late, so we ask everyone not to try it,” Yamaha tweeted. Consider yourself warned.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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