Washington: For more than an hour one evening in 2018, President Donald Trump sat around a dinner table in a private suite in his Washington hotel with a group of donors, including two men at the center of the impeachment inquiry, talking about golf, trade, politics — and removing the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The conversation, captured on a recording made public Saturday, contradicted Trump’s repeated statements that he does not know the two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who went on to work with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to carry out a pressure campaign on Ukraine.
The recording — a video shot on Fruman’s phone during the dinner in April 2018 — largely confirmed Parnas’ account of having raised with Trump criticisms of the ambassador to Kyiv at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, and the president’s immediate order that Yovanovitch be removed from the post.
“Get rid of her,” Trump can be heard responding.
The recording was made public by Parnas’ lawyer, Joseph Bondy, hours after the president’s lawyers began presenting their defense in the impeachment trial and as Democrats looked for leverage to persuade Republicans to support their calls to expand the inquiry by introducing additional evidence and by calling new witnesses.
Bondy said it was being released in “an effort to provide clarity to the American people and the Senate as to the need to conduct a fair trial, with witnesses and evidence.”
In the recording, Parnas, who is the more talkative of the two, broached an energy deal the two were pursuing in Ukraine and then went on to discuss several themes that later became central to the pressure campaign. He claimed that Yovanovitch, whose name he did not cite, had been disparaging Trump. He said that the Ukrainians “were supporting the Clintons all these years.” He even mentioned in passing the family of the former Vice President Joe Biden.
The recording does not appear to introduce substantive new information about the effort to oust Yovanovitch. But it does seem to shed light on the origins of Trump’s interest in the issue and to foreshadow his administration’s withholding of military assistance from the country as part of the pressure campaign. It hints at the motivations of Parnas and Fruman, who had come to believe that Yovanovitch was opposed to their business plans in Ukraine, where they had tried to break into the natural gas market, according to associates of the two men, both of whom are Soviet-born U.S. citizens.
And it provides a glimpse of something rarely seen: top-tier political donors getting a chance in an intimate setting to share their views with the president and press their agendas with him.
During the dinner, Trump lashed out at the European Union for trying to “screw” the United States, assailed the World Trade Organization as a “weapon” intended to harm America and lamented the “globalists” around him who did not care if manufacturing plants shuttered.
Democrats are seeking Trump’s removal from office on the grounds that he abused his power by pressing Ukraine to investigate targets of the president, including Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Parnas and Fruman worked closely with Giuliani in seeking information and making contacts in Ukraine in support of the effort, starting months after the April 2018 dinner.
For most of the recording, the camera is pointed at the ceiling but the audio is clear. Early in the recording, Trump can be seen as he enters the private room at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on April 30, 2018.
In the full recording released Saturday, Parnas can be heard telling Trump that he and Fruman “are in the process of purchasing an energy company in Ukraine right now.”
Trump responds, “How’s Ukraine doing?” then quickly adds, “Don’t answer,” prompting laughter in the room.
After some conversation about Ukraine’s war with its hostile neighbor, Russia, and its efforts to establish energy security, Trump asked, “How long would they last in a fight with Russia?”
“I don’t think very long,” Parnas responded. “Without us, not very long,” adding “they feel they’re going to be OK if you support them.”
Parnas continued by saying that “the biggest problem is corruption there,” and later added Yovanovitch, although not by name, to a list of issues Trump should address in Ukraine.
“The biggest problem there, I think, where we, where you, need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador,” he said. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody, ‘Wait, he’s going to get impeached, just wait.’”
The remark prompted laughter in the room.
Trump asked for the ambassador’s name. Fruman said, “I don’t remember.” Trump, sounding stern, then said: “Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
Those comments were directed at one of Trump’s aides who was in the room at the time, Parnas has previously said. There was some additional laughter in the room at Trump’s remarks.
Yovanovitch remained in her job for another year after Trump’s remarks until she was recalled on the White House’s orders. It is not clear whether the president changed his mind, forgot about his order or was talked out of dismissing her. Parnas has recently acknowledged that he was wrong about Yovanovitch, who has denied ever disparaging Trump.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trump has previously acknowledged that he had problems with Yovanovitch but has defended his actions as appropriate, given that presidents have the right to name and replace ambassadors as they see fit.
During the dinner, attendees fawned over Trump and seemed to revel in their ability to ask him for direct help with business issues.
In the meandering conversation, Trump defended the aggressive actions he was taking against China and explained that he overruled advisers who urged him to take a softer approach because the United States was already so deeply on the losing end of the relationship.
“They’re tough, but I always say when you’re $500 billion down you can’t lose the trade war,” Trump said, referring to the bilateral trade deficit the United States runs with China.
Trump, who has since reached a trade truce with China, foreshadowed his next big trade fight, taking aim at the EU.
“The European Union is a group of countries that got together to screw the United States. It’s as simple as that,” Trump said, adding that such a notion is surprising because “we’re all sort of from there, right?”
The conversation came just one month after Trump had slapped tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, including metals imported from Europe.
At the dinner, Trump repeatedly praised the tariffs, although he occasionally expressed concern that they could reduce the amount of available metals. “I don’t want to be at a point where we don’t have enough steel in this country,” he said. A few minutes later, he added, “You’re going to see prices go up. Hopefully not too much.”
It has been a decade since legal changes paved the way for unlimited donations to super PACs, making such gatherings an even more explicit demonstration of how a large political payment can turn into access to push a special interest.
The donors competed for time to walk through their sometimes conflicting issues, one by one, pitching the president to take up their causes almost as if they were on “Shark Tank,” the reality television show, looking for investors in their ideas.
Zekelman, a Canadian citizen who owns a steel-tube manufacturing company that donated $1.75 million to the political action committee supporting Trump, pushed the president on what he saw as the top two challenges facing his company: cheap steel tube imports from Asia and new federal rules that made it harder to find truck drivers.
He first urged Trump to go even further in his effort to limit steel imports to the United States, and he then questioned the rules intended to prevent fatal truck accidents by using electronic monitoring systems to limit how many hours drivers can be on the road.
Since that dinner, legislation has been introduced in the House with the co-sponsorship of 12 Republicans, including the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, to allow smaller trucking companies to get exemptions from the rule.
Zekelman is not allowed under federal law to make a contribution to the political action committee. So his company donated the money through one of its subsidiaries based in the United States, a maneuver that has generated a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that he might have violated federal election law, after The New York Times wrote about the donations last year.
Parnas did not limit his efforts to influence Trump to Ukraine. He can be heard trying to engage Trump about issues related to another business venture he would go on to pursue — a plan to win marijuana retail licenses in Nevada and elsewhere.
He appeared to ask Trump to consider changing regulations that banks have said make it difficult for them to process transactions related to the cannabis business.
“Have you thought about allowing banking in some of these states that allow cannabis?” Parnas asked.
“What?” Trump responded, “You can’t do banking there?”
Parnas said banking regulations were “the biggest problem” for the industry and argued that the issue could help Trump politically. If the president created a bipartisan committee to study it, Parnas argued, “you can know what’s going on and make the right decision. By just putting the committee together, it will give you such a boost in the midterm with a lot of the millennials.”
Trump expressed some skepticism, saying marijuana use has led to “more accidents” and asserting “it does cause an IQ problem.”
But Donald Trump Jr. seemed more agreeable, arguing “between that and alcohol, as far as I’m concerned alcohol does much more damage,” and asserting “you don’t see people beating their wives on marijuana. It’s just different.”
A spokesman for the younger Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
Kenneth P. Vogel and Ben Protess c.2020 The New York Times Company