WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and aides sought Thursday to distance him from a Soviet-born businessman who said Trump knew all about efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating U.S. political rival Joe Biden – a pivotal point in the Senate impeachment trial of the president.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to him,” Trump told reporters about Lev Parnas, taking questions after an event announcing new federal guidance he has said will “safeguard” the rights of students to pray in school.
Parnas, who once worked with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, has provided House investigators with documents to buttress his claims that Trump sought political dirt from a foreign country on Biden and on his son Hunter Biden, who once worked for a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma.
“It was all about Joe Biden, Hunter Biden,” Parnas told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, adding that “it was never about corruption. It was strictly about Burisma, which included Hunter Biden and Joe Biden.”
Parnas said Trump knows him well and there are pictures of the two of them at various events.
In an interview with CNN, Parnas said that every time Trump denies knowing him, “I’ll show him another picture. He’s lying.”
Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, surrounded by children who were invited to attend the school prayer event, Trump said that “I meet thousands and thousands of people” and “take thousands of pictures” with them at fundraisers. But he said he does not remember Parnas.
“Perhaps he’s a fine man,” Trump said. “Perhaps he’s not.”
Trump spoke about his latest accuser as the Senate formally opened the trial on impeachment charges that he abused power and obstructed a congressional investigation into his actions regarding Ukraine.
The president is accused of seeking a foreign nation’s help with his 2020 re-election campaign by having Ukraine investigate a rival, Biden, and threatening to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine if it did not comply with his wishes.
In his Oval Office remarks, Trump again described the entire impeachment process as a “big hoax.”
At one point, Trump made reference to Parnas’ legal problems, saying that “he’s probably trying to make a deal for himself” – a theme echoed by many of his aides throughout the day.
In downplaying Parnas’ claims, various Trump officials stressed that Parnas is under indictment, and claimed that he is trying to help himself by accusing others.
“These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
Parnas also said Vice President Mike Pence knew about the effort to lean on Ukraine to investigate Biden. He said Pence decided not to attend the inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelensky because Ukraine had not announced an investigation of the Bidens.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said that witnesses during the House impeachment investigation “have testified under oath in direct contradiction to Lev Parnas statements.”
It’s “very simple,” Short added: “Lev Parnas is under a multi-count indictment and will say anything to anybody who will listen in hopes of staying out of prison.”
Pence said Thursday that he “don’t know the guy” when he was asked about Parnas. Pence also called “completely false” the accusation from Parnas that the vice president knew about the effort to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
In the wake of Parnas’ claims, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry announced Thursday it would investigate evidence that Parnas knew about surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch, who was then U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Parnas’ submission to House investigators included text messages between Parnas and a Trump supporter named Robert Hyde discussing what appeared to be efforts to track Yovanovitch’s movements in Kyiv.
On another front, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a legal opinion saying that Trump’s Office of Management and Budget “violated the law” in withholding security assistance to Ukraine.
During the impeachment investigation, Democrats said Trump used the withheld aid in an attempt to extort Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Biden.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who requested the GAO investigation, said the GAO report proves that “the Trump Administration illegally withheld assistance from Ukraine and the public evidence shows that the president himself ordered this illegal act.”
OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said the administration disagreed with GAO’s opinion.
“OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President’s priorities and with the law,” she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment: Donald Trump says he doesn’t know Lev Parnas