The Parnas problem

New evidence from Lev Parnas has Democrats more insistent than ever that the Senate impeachment trial include testimony from witnesses who did not appear before the House. Parnas joins the ranks of John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney as key witnesses the Dems say they need testimony from.

Even the Democrats can’t deny that Parnas is a problematic witness. He appears to be a crook with a motive to lie.

However, Parnas has provided documents to support some of his claims. The documents cannot be dismissed on credibility grounds.

Before turning to the documents, let’s take a moment to reflect that it was Rudy Giuliani who selected Parnas as a key operative in Ukraine, and President Trump who selected Giuliani to control administration policy towards Ukraine. Giving power to sleazes isn’t an impeachable offense, but it’s a mark against the Trump administration.

What about the documents, though? To the extent they tend to show that President Trump, for a time, made important aspects of U.S. policy towards Ukraine contingent on an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden (or at least on the announcement of such an investigation), the documents are cumulative. The evidence gathered by the House leaves no serious doubt that this is what Trump did.

It may be difficult, though, for Trump’s defense team and some of his Senate defenders to make this argument. They steadfastly insist that, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that no aspect of Trump’s Ukraine policy depended for even a minute on Ukraine investigating, or announcing it would investigate, the Bidens.

In any case, Parnas’s documents shed light on another matter — the removal of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The documents show that in early 2019 Yuri Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, was strongly urging the administration, via emails and texts to Parnas, to fire Yovanovitch. And they suggest that his cooperation in investigating the Bidens hinged on her removal.

In March, Parnas sent Lutsenko a series of questions about Yovanovitch and the Bidens — questions formulated by John Solomon of The Hill. Lutsenko didn’t take kindly to the questions. He responded:

I’m sorry, but this is all simply b***s**t. I’m f*****g sick of all this. . .I’m prepared to [thrash] your opponent. But you want more and more. We’re over.

Parnas understood the “opponent” to be Joe Biden.

Phone records show that very soon thereafter, Parnas spoke with Solomon. A week after Lutsenko’s angry email, Solomon published an article airing some of Lutsenko’s grievances against Ambassador Yovanovitch.

Lutsenko remained less than fully satisfied. The next day, he texted Parnas:

It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam, you are bringing into question all my allegations. Including about B.

Parnas understood “Madam” to be Yovanovitch, the “decision” to be her removal, and “B” to be Joe Biden.

Less than a week later, Lutsenko told Parnas that he had documents showing payments by Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, to a consulting firm for which Hunter Biden worked. Parnas asked, “can you send them?” Lutsenko responded, ““I’ll give them to you through the new ambassador,” adding a smiling emoticon.

A few weeks later, Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine.

I’m not sufficiently conversant with the record regarding Yovanovitch’s firing to say whether the evidence from Parnas’s documents adds meaningfully to the record or, as with his evidence on “quid pro quo,” is cumulative. But let’s assume that this is meaningful new evidence. Does it warrant calling Parnas as a witness?

I say it doesn’t because the conduct described in (or that can be inferred from) the documents doesn’t remotely rise to the level of impeachable behavior.

Presidents have the right to remove ambassadors with or without cause. Indeed, ambassadors are routinely appointed and removed for partisan political purposes.

It is not an impeachable offense for a president to remove an ambassador because she has incurred the displeasure of someone in the country where she serves whom the administration regards as important (for whatever reason). Nor is it an impeachable offence for a president to remove an ambassador because she disagrees with the president about whether a former American official’s conduct is worthy of being investigated (even if that former official is a political rival of the president’s).

Withholding, for political purposes, military aid appropriated by Congress to a nation under military attack is a serious matter (though in this case the aid was withheld only briefly, thus making the matter less serious). Recalling an ambassador, for whatever reason, is not very serious. It may be a matter for congressional oversight, but it is not even close to the stuff of an impeachment.

To summarize, Parnas’s testimony regarding “quid pro quo” is cumulative. His testimony regarding the removal of Marie Yovanovitch is irrelevant to impeachment.

Therefore, the Senate should not take Parnas’s testimony in this impeachment trial.

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