In October 2019, Lev Parnas found himself in a Virginia jail, wondering what had happened to his life.
Only days earlier, Parnas had been at the center of Trump’s Washington, holding court at the president’s Washington hotel, traveling around the world, and mixing with powerful and well-connected figures. Then, Parnas’ life had been upended when he was arrested on charges of violating federal election laws by allegedly funneling money from Ukraine to Republican politicians and political action committees. Prosecutors accused him of “fraud, deception, and foreign influence on a grand scale.”
Even so, Parnas still had reason to hope: He had friends in high places. Right up until the moment of his arrest, he had been working closely with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family. It was a mission Parnas believed was of great importance to the president.
Parnas’ confidence that Trump would look out for him was not totally unfounded. After all, Trump had broadcast that he would take care of his own, provided they stayed loyal, and the Mueller report is rife with instances of Trump dangling pardons for his associates. And he’s since made good on that promise. Most recently, he commuted the 40-month prison sentence of Roger Stone, his longtime associate, who a judge said was prosecuted and convicted for “covering up for the president.” In an extraordinary move, Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department withdrew its prosecution of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, after Flynn had pleaded guilty — twice — to lying to the FBI.
But Parnas didn’t make the cut. Guiliani and Trump washed their hands of him, and Parnas continues to feel the full weight of the Justice Department. The United States has made separation between the Justice Department and the White House a cornerstone of its constitutional system in order to prevent abuse of law enforcement’s awesome powers. But Trump has restaffed the department with enough lackeys that it operates less like a blind guardian of justice and more like Donald Trump’s law firm.
Parnas isn’t blameless. He was an opportunist who was playing an old game in Washington, buying access and trading favors with influential figures. But his story is instructive for what justice at the highest levels looks like after three and a half years of a president who puts himself above the law. “They thought I would shut up and be quiet, but I just want to get the truth out,” Parnas tells Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview.
An insider-turned-outsider, Parnas is one of the few who dared to tell the story of potential wrongdoing by the president and his associates. In Parnas’ case, his own lawyers at the time — who also happened to have been attorneys for the president and his associates — and an unlikely assist from the Justice Department combined to effectively neutralize, and then silence, the threat that Parnas posed to Trump as a witness to an impeachable offense.
Parnas was many things before, he says, he met Giuliani in the spring of 2018 in the lobby of Trump’s Washington hotel: a stock broker selling penny stocks for shady firms, a producer for a never-made movie project that left Parnas with a half-million dollar judgment, and the head of a failed wireless tech firm. For the 48-year-old Parnas, who had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine as a small child, getting to know “America’s Mayor” — someone who was on intimate terms with the most powerful man in the world — opened up a world of connections. And he took full advantage of his friendship. The political contacts Parnas made through Giuliani began to attract money, allowing him to put down a deposit on a $4.5 million home and, prosecutors say, collect a $1 million loan from a Ukrainian oligarch.
Over the next year and a half, Parnas became Giuliani’s right-hand man on the Ukraine investigation. “My whole world was Trump World,” he says. As part of their work together, Parnas made regular trips overseas — visiting Spain, Ukraine, Israel, Poland, England, Austria, and France — to gather information on the man who would end up being Trump’s rival for a second term, former Vice President Joe Biden. Parnas was Giuliani’s guest at the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. Parnas had barnstormed the country with Giuliani on campaign trips and fundraisers for candidates, including Ron DeSantis, who embraced Parnas on the night of his election as Florida’s governor. Giuliani agreed to be named honorary godfather to Parnas’ newborn son.
Giuliani declined to comment for this story, other than to call Parnas a “proven liar.” His defense attorney Robert Costello tells Rolling Stone, “Should Rudy have ever associated himself with Parnas? In hindsight of course not. We all make mistakes.”
It was in the fall of 2019 that Parnas’ life began to quickly unravel. Congress had learned of an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint alleging the president had abused his office for political gain. The House of Representatives sent Parnas a letter on September 30th of last year, demanding his documents and testimony in the impeachment inquiry.
Parnas tells Rolling Stone he learned about the letter while in Vienna working on Giuliani’s Ukraine investigation. He says he was prepared to comply; he had nothing to hide. After all, he believed he was working for the president. This would be a chance to tell the world what he had helped Giuliani uncover in their investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
At the same time, Parnas knew he needed a lawyer; Giuliani recommended he hire John M. Dowd, the 79-year-old attorney who had represented Trump during the Mueller investigation. In early transatlantic phone calls, Dowd told Parnas he probably wouldn’t be able to help him. Although Dowd had resigned as Trump’s defense attorney in March 2018, there remained a possible conflict of interest, and Dowd doubted the president would waive it. Parnas told Dowd he was wrong and asked him to check again. A short time later, Parnas says Dowd called back. “You’re one lucky man,” Dowd told him.
Jay Sekulow, the president’s attorney, emailed Dowd to say that he had discussed the matter with the president, who consented to allowing Dowd to represent Parnas. In about a week, circumstances changed following Parnas’ arrest. Trump would he insist he didn’t know Parnas, the man for whom he had just waived away any conflicts clearing the path for his former lawyer to take over Parnas’ case.
On October 3rd, Parnas says he flew from Vienna to meet Dowd, who lives in Massachusetts. Dowd invited him to spend the night as a guest in his home on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod. It was an unusual request — “I’m a grown man. I like my privacy,” Parnas says — but he didn’t feel that he could say no. The house was filled with mementos from Dowd’s long and illustrious career. Dowd had started out as a lawyer in the Marine Corps, then prosecuted organized crime for the Justice Department. In the 1980s, as special counsel to the commissioner of baseball, he led the investigation into Pete Rose betting on games that ended with Rose’s ban from the sport.
The next morning, after Dowd and his wife cooked Parnas a breakfast of bacon and eggs, they all trooped upstairs to Dowd’s second-floor office. According to Parnas, Dowd had him put a timeline together of his Ukraine work for Giuliani while Dowd’s wife, Carole, took notes.
Parnas says Dowd then got on the phone with Sekulow, Giuliani, and other attorneys. The call defined the plan going forward: The whole impeachment proceeding was invalid, and there would be no compliance with the House’s requests. Parnas’ silence was a critical part of the effort.
Dowd says his former client was either lying or had confused facts and dates. Presented with questions derived from text messages seen by Rolling Stone that supported Parnas’ account of his meetings with Dowd, the attorney declined to respond, citing the magazine’s 2014 retracted article on the University of Virginia rape case. “You publish at your peril,” Dowd wrote.
Dowd is a gruff, former Marine captain. He once cursed at CNBC and flipped off a cameraman after his client, a hedge-fund billionaire, was convicted in an insider-trading scheme. Dowd was beginning to grate on Parnas. “He talks to you like you’re a nobody,” Parnas says.
If the goal was to keep Parnas from talking, there were few lawyers better suited for the job than Dowd. He had quit as the president’s lawyer amid disagreements over whether Trump should talk to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, according to Bob Woodward’s account in Fear. Woodward quotes Dowd as saying Trump could not testify because he was “clearly disabled” when it came to telling the truth.
As would become clear, Parnas had strong evidence that the president had abused his office to damage a political opponent. A note jotted down in a Vienna hotel about wanting Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into the Bidens became a critical piece of evidence in the impeachment inquiry. “It is not every day that you get a document like this — what appears to be a member of the conspiracy writing down the object of the conspiracy, but that is exactly what we see here,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said during the impeachment trial.
While Dowd and the other attorneys rushed to head off the requests from the House, Parnas pressed ahead with the Ukraine investigation. He was preparing to return to Vienna to, among other things, prepare a former Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for an upcoming TV interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
In an email dated October 8th, Dowd wrote to, among others, Giuliani, Sekulow, and — critically — Jane Raskin, an attorney who would become a member of the president’s impeachment defense team, to tell them that Parnas was going to remain silent. “We are sending a letter to the intel committee to eliminate any doubt that Igor and Lev will appear to answer questions because we are not prepared to do so,” Dowd wrote in the email, which was released by Parnas’ attorney. Dowd added, wistfully, that he would miss the chance to challenge “the stupidity of Nancy’s folly,” the “fake” whistleblower, and “Schifty” Adam Schiff.
Two days later, after a final pretrip meeting with Giuliani, Parnas headed to the airport. Around 6 p.m., as Parnas and his partner, Igor Fruman, were walking down a jetway at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., for a one-way first-class flight to Europe, plainclothes FBI agents stopped the two men and asked to see their passports. The FBI agents handcuffed Parnas and Fruman on the jetway, led the two men down a staircase onto the tarmac, and whisked them away in awaiting vehicles.
Parnas found himself squeezed between two branches of government: a Congress that wanted to hear from him and a Justice Department that, intentionally or not, had effectively silenced him. Arresting Parnas after he received a request from the House impeachment inquiry virtually assured that he would be unable to testify without either invoking or waiving his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “Typically, most lawyers would give somebody the advice that Parnas’ lawyers gave him: Don’t testify,” said Peter Joy, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
Mimi Rocah, who spent 16 years as a federal prosecutor in the Manhattan office that indicted Parnas, said she doubted her former office sought to silence Parnas. If prosecutors in Manhattan saw that the indictment was intended to stop Parnas from speaking, that fact would have leaked. “There were avenues other than just going to press saying this is happening,” Rocah said.
Parnas later learned that he had been under FBI surveillance for quite some time. “Don’t you remember me?” he says an agent asked him. “I served you sausages in Vienna.”
The decision to make the arrest on the jetway, however, made it appear as though Parnas was trying to escape — a circumstance that prosecutors used to underscore their argument that Parnas was a flight risk with access to “limitless” funding from overseas. A judge set bail at $1 million, a high amount for a case involving election-law violations.
One person who was closely following events was Attorney General Barr, who was first briefed on the matter shortly after he took office in February 2019. The day after Parnas’ arrest, Barr visited the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which had been leading the investigation into Parnas. There, Barr met with the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoff Berman, and thanked him for his work on the Parnas investigation, says Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
A few months later, on another visit to New York, Barr demanded Berman’s resignation for reasons that remain unclear. Berman later told Congress that he refused Barr’s request to resign, in part, because there were “important investigations he wanted to see through to completion.” It’s not known whether those investigations and Berman’s firing involved the Parnas case or a review of Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine. Ultimately, Berman was fired by the president.
Behind bars in Alexandria, Virginia, Parnas entered pleas of not guilty. Parnas was issued a green jumpsuit and spent 22 hours a day in a cell in the same housing unit once occupied by Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. Outside his cell came some soul-crushing news: The president said he didn’t know him.
Parnas says his frustrations boiled over in a jailhouse meeting with Dowd and Kevin Downing, Manafort’s defense lawyer, who had joined Parnas’ team.
“I’m still confused,” Parnas says. “What the fuck is going on?” Why was he being deemed a flight risk? If this is an election case, why was he being treated like he was a gangster like El Chapo?
According to Parnas, the meeting soured when Downing and Dowd informed him that his partner, Igor Fruman, would be getting released on bail, while Parnas would remain locked up. (Fruman has also pleaded not guilty.)
It was beginning to seem to Parnas like his attorneys were interested in protecting the president, not him. Before the arrest, they had asked him to gather up any information that might possibly fall under the House request and hand it over to them. They had urged him to keep quiet and to trust their legal advice. Parnas says Dowd told him, “Shut up. Don’t give any interviews.”
What really set things off in the jailhouse was when Parnas asked why Trump was claiming that he didn’t know him. Parnas had heard about it from jail guards. “Who are you to tell him what he can or cannot say?” Dowd snapped, according to Parnas, when Parnas asked him about what Trump had said. “Be a man. Just be quiet.”
“If you don’t get out of here right now,” Parnas says he replied, “we’re going to have a major problem.”
Downing pushed an emergency button and the guards came and escorted the attorneys out. It was the last time he spoke to Dowd or Downing. (Downing did not return emails and a phone call left seeking comment.)
Having the president turn his back on him was one thing. What really hurt Parnas, he says, is that Giuliani, a man he called “brother” in text messages, wanted nothing to do with him either.
During his two weeks in jail, Parnas says he only heard from Giuliani once, under what he says were unusual circumstances. One day, Parnas tells Rolling Stone, someone slipped a handwritten postcard from Rudy under his cell door. In the card, which was addressed from the White House, Giuliani expressed his regret that he wouldn’t be joining Parnas in Vienna. He also noted that Downing had done a good job representing Manafort. For Parnas, the final straw in his relationship with Giuliani came later when Rudy said he wouldn’t meet with his wife, Svetlana, without an attorney present.
Parnas hired Joseph A. Bondy, a veteran New York criminal-defense attorney. By the end of October 2019, Bondy had notified the House that Parnas intended to comply with the subpoena. In another sign of how Parnas’ criminal case complicated those efforts, it took months before prosecutors handed back the documents seized from Parnas’ home, and they arrived just days before the House finished its impeachment inquiry.
Even so, Parnas’ voluminous records corroborated the House’s findings. The chairmen of four House committees said Parnas’ records “demonstrate that there is more evidence relevant to the president’s scheme, but they have been concealed by the president himself.” Nonetheless, the GOP-controlled Senate refused to hear from witnesses and cleared the president of wrongdoing. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Republican to break ranks, said Trump was guilty of “an appalling abuse of the public trust.”
One of the ironies of working for a man who has little regard for truth or the law is that the people he has surrounded himself with throughout his life — the shady lawyers-turned-businessmen like Michael Cohen or immigrant hustlers like Parnas — are easily discredited when they turn sides. But it’s also revealing: Trump loyalists work hardest to discredit those who can do the most to damage the president. Parnas, like Cohen, now looks back on his support for Trump with deep regret and says he was wrong for trying to further the president and Giuliani’s scheme in Ukraine. He intends to cast his vote for Biden and Kamala Harris, come November.
But the lessons of his case won’t be lost on any administration hell-bent on avoiding political damage at all costs: A witness can be pressured into silence, and when that fails, a criminal prosecution can guarantee that Congress never hears from them.
And long after Trump is gone, there will be more Lev Parnases and Michael Flynns. When the next president deals with them, will the public still trust the Justice Department to pursue the truth and not protect the president and his associates? And, having seen Trump escape impeachment despite everything he has done, will that president be unable to resist the temptation to do the same?