It’s amazing that we haven’t seen more secret recordings of him surface during his presidency. He’s not a stickler for communications security, he has a knack for turning allies into enemies who might have reason to betray him (hi, John Bolton), and he’s prone to surround himself with dubious cronies like Michael Cohen and Omarosa with a penchant for secretly recording conversations.
I mean, his presidential campaign nearly derailed in the final weeks of the 2016 race due to a secret recording. The writers of the virtual reality we now live in have always enjoyed this plot device.
ABC says it’s aware of a surreptitious recording of the president which somehow remained secret for nearly two years despite intense interest in his intentions towards Ukraine. It’s not a smoking gun. But it’s … it’s not great.
The recording appears to contradict statements by President Trump and support the narrative that has been offered by [Lev] Parnas during broadcast interviews in recent days. Sources familiar with the recording said the recording was made during an intimate April 30, 2018 dinner at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C…
“Get rid of her!” is what the voice that appears to be President Trump’s is heard saying. “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it.”
On the recording, it appears the two Giuliani associates [Parnas and Igor Fruman] are telling President Trump that the U.S. ambassador has been bad-mouthing him, which leads directly to the apparent remarks by the President. The recording was made by Fruman according to sources familiar with the tape…
Parnas appears to say: “The biggest problem there, I think where we need to start is we gotta get rid of the ambassador. She’s still left over from the Clinton administration,” Parnas can be heard telling Trump. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait,” he said. (Yovanovitch actually had served in the State Department since the Reagan Administration.)
Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph Bondy, confirmed to the Daily Beast that Igor Fruman made the recording. Which, let’s note up front, isn’t all bad for Trump. For one thing, there’s the timing. This was April 2018, a year before Yovanovitch was finally ousted as ambassador as the Ukraine pressure campaign picked up. Trump can point to this conversation as evidence that he had a longstanding non-Biden reason for wanting Yovanovitch out — he was under the impression, mistakenly or not, that she was insubordinate. (Democrats will point to it as proof that Trump had reason to believe early on that Yovanovitch wouldn’t silently tolerate the eventual quid pro quo with Ukraine, which is why POTUS finally got around to ousting her just as that was taking off.)
And what’s more, it wasn’t Trump who brought up the idea of firing her to Parnas and Fruman. It was Parnas who brought it up to him. Parnas was an instigator, not a pawn.
So what’s bad about the tape? In the first place, it largely corroborates what Parnas has been telling the media. Here’s how he described this same incident to Anderson Cooper last week:
PARNAS: That was the first interaction about her. We had — it was a dinner at the — a private dinner, for a super PAC in Washington, D.C. at the Trump Hotel. In the conversation, the subject of Ukraine was brought up and I told the president that our opinion that she is bad- mouthing him and that she said that he’s going to get impeached, something like that. I don’t know if that’s word for word, but that she was —
COOPER: You said that at the table?
COOPER: Where the president was?
PARNAS: Correct, correct. And his reaction was, he looked at me like he got very angry and basically turned around to John DeStefano and said, fire her.
Sounds like that’s exactly what happened, per the tape. Parnas even cops to being the one who brought up Yovanovitch to Trump, not the other way around. (He told CNN he wanted Yovanovitch out because he had been led to believe by Trump’s cronies that she was a disloyal Obama holdover, a Soros operative of some sort.) ABC notes a discrepancy in another interview he gave last week, to MSNBC: Parnas thought DeStefano replied to Trump that Yovanovitch couldn’t be fired yet because Mike Pompeo hadn’t been confirmed as Secretary of State, when in reality Pompeo had already been confirmed a few days before that April 30, 2018 dinner. Why Parnas’s memory was faulty in that regard is unclear, but his basic recollection of what Trump said is apparently now corroborated. Which tells us that, shady though he is, not everything he told the media lately is a lie. What else has he been telling the truth about?
Another thing the tape seems to prove, obviously, is that despite his claims that he didn’t know Parnas or Fruman, Trump was willing to chat with them about the fate of a U.S. diplomat. Which doesn’t mean that he knew them well: This was a donor dinner for a pro-Trump Super PAC and here was one of the attendees, who paid to be there, trying to ingratiate himself to the president by ratting out insubordinate employees. Maybe Trump played along not because he and Parnas were buds but because that’s what you do with donors. You humor them. And if any president might be prone to respond overenthusiastically to flattery, to the point where he’d casually call for the firing of one of his own diplomats based on a rumor relayed to him by a sycophantic grifter, it’s Trump.
The tape, in other words, doesn’t in itself disprove Trump’s claim that he didn’t know Parnas and Fruman. But it certainly doesn’t disprove Parnas’s claim that they were well acquainted either.
How do we know it’s real? ABC hasn’t posted the audio. How Parnas’s lawyer can know for a fact that it’s authentic is hard to say. ABC claims that it starts off as a video, on which Donald Trump Jr can be seen posing for pictures. Then there’s video of guests entering the suite at the Trump Hotel for the donor dinner. Then it continues as audio, with the phone placed face down so that there’s no image. Is that too convenient? If the audio has been doctored to frame Trump, it’s odd that it doesn’t actually capture him saying anything incriminating. He has the right to dismiss any U.S. ambassador, and he’d be well within his rights to do so for actual insubordination. If it’s a fake, it’s an odd fake.
A better question: Why is it being leaked now when it’s existed, allegedly, for nearly two years? Is Fruman dangling something at House Democrats to try to gain leniency for himself in his criminal case? Did Democrats already have this audio and chose to withhold it until now, to put extra pressure on Senate Republicans to call new witnesses like Parnas? Remember that the Dems’ sole goal at the trial, knowing that the outcome is assured, is to call into question the legitimacy of the eventual “not guilty” verdict. Leaking provocative evidence while the trial is going on to tease the public about what we might not yet know is one way to attack that legitimacy.
If I were Trump, this is the conversation I’d be worried about with respect to a secret recording — assuming the conversation ever even took place, I mean:
Among the many guests who had their pictures taken with President Donald Trump at the White House’s annual Hanukkah party [in 2018] were two Soviet-born businessmen from Florida, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman…
At one point during the party that night, Parnas and Fruman slipped out of a large reception room packed with hundreds of Trump donors to have a private meeting with the President and Giuliani, according to two acquaintances in whom Parnas confided right after the meeting…
Eventually, according to what Parnas told his confidants, the topic turned to Ukraine that night. According to those two confidants, Parnas said that “the big guy,” as he sometimes referred to the President in conversation, talked about tasking him and Fruman with what Parnas described as “a secret mission” to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Casually commenting to a donor that a disloyal diplomat should be fired isn’t a gamechanger, although it does raise the questions I asked up above. Personally ordering Rudy’s two henchmen to assist in a plot to squeeze Ukraine’s new president for Biden dirt specifically would be a gamechanger — if it could be proved. Can it? What else does Fruman have on his phone?