Giuliani associate: I know where the quid pro quo flows

In this case, the quid has increased from the main narrative, even if the quo remains the same. Lev Parnas, the Rudy Giuliani associate and client arrested at the airport with his partner Igor Fruman for campaign-finance violations, claims he personally delivered an ultimatum to Ukrainian officials on behalf of the Trump administration. Either announce investigations into Burisma and the Bidens, or else … no Mike Pence visit?

The New York Times reports that Parnas wants to tell this story to Adam Schiff’s committee ASAP:

The associate, Lev Parnas, told a representative of the incoming government that it had to announce an investigation into Mr. Trump’s political rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his son, or else Vice President Mike Pence would not attend the swearing-in of the new president, and the United States would freeze aid, the lawyer said.

The claim by Mr. Parnas, who is preparing to share his account with impeachment investigators, challenges the narrative of events from Mr. Trump and Ukrainian officials that is at the core of the congressional inquiry. It also directly links Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to threats of repercussions made to the Ukrainians, something he has strenuously denied.

Sounds bad, although mainly for Parnas himself … if Parnas can back it up. However, his partner disputes this account, as does Rudy:

But Mr. Parnas’s account, while potentially significant, is being contradicted on several fronts. None of the people involved dispute that the meeting occurred, but Mr. Parnas stands alone in saying the intention was to present an ultimatum to the Ukrainian leadership.

Another participant in the meeting, Mr. Parnas’s business partner, Igor Fruman, said Mr. Parnas’s claim was false; the men never raised the issues of aid or the vice president’s attendance at the inauguration, lawyers for Mr. Fruman said.

Mr. Giuliani denied Mr. Parnas’s contention that he had delivered the warning at the direction of Mr. Giuliani. “Categorically, I did not tell him to say that,” Mr. Giuliani said.

Parnas and Fruman are already on the hook for some potential prosecution, which would certainly motivate them to spill the beans on what they know. That’s what makes the contradiction between the two so interesting. If Fruman protecting Giuliani while Parnas tries to blow the whistle? Or is Parnas trying to sell a made-up story in hopes of getting off the hook by painting himself as a whistleblower?

Chances are that the answer people choose has a lot to do with whether they support or oppose Donald Trump. The problem for Parnas is that he’d have to either back this up with contemporary records — a recording or transcript of the call — or more witnesses that corroborate his telling of events. It sounds as though Parnas has neither, which won’t help him out — even if it still helps Schiff make the Trump administration appear corrupt.

There’s another problem with this development too, which is that it’s still secondhand at best. Unless Parnas testifies that Trump ordered him to demand the quid pro quo ultimatum, his testimony amounts to hearsay. It certainly adds to the smoke around Ukraine-Gate, but it’s not direct evidence, or really evidence at all. Perhaps Parnas can claim that Giuliani ordered him to demand the quid pro quo, but that’s not a crime, and it doesn’t implicate Trump in any normal legal sense.

Plus, as former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy argues, one has to determine whether any of this is an impeachable offense. That’s ambiguous enough to also be a Rorschach test:

Let’s say you believe the president abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens for violations of Ukrainian law in order to help his 2020 campaign – something that has not been established, but that people could reasonably conclude happened. You might conclude that this misconduct would meet Hamilton’s definition of an impeachable offense.

But you might also quite reasonably conclude that it is not impeachable under the circumstances.

Remember, the Ukrainians got their defense aid – which was in addition to defense aid President Trump was already providing to them, aid that President Obama denied for years, with no objection from Democrats, despite Russian aggression. The Ukrainians did not have to agree to investigate the Bidens to get the aid.

Plus, there would have been nothing wrong with Trump’s conditioning aid to a notoriously corrupt country on its commitment to combat corruption generally; nor would there be any impropriety in the president’s asking Ukraine to assist the Justice Department’s ongoing probe of the origins of the Obama administration’s 2016 Trump-Russia investigation – which appears to have had a Ukrainian component (Ukrainian investigative agencies being pressed by American agencies and Democrats to investigate Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign chairman; Ukrainian officials colluding with the Clinton campaign).

The question here, McCarthy says, is not necessarily whether the president committed “misconduct,” which every president at some point does in one way or another, especially in the eyes of their political opponents. Remember Barack Obama’s open-mic comment to Dmitri Medvedev asking for Russia to back off their pressure until he won re-election, when he would have more “flexibility”? The question is really whether that misconduct is so egregious that it presents a national consensus for removal.

McCarthy says “the answer is no,” and polling shows that momentum for impeachment has stalled, but House Democrats aren’t done holding hearings yet, either. They might still be able to make such a case, but … it won’t be with Lev Parnas.