Corruption indictments filed Thursday against two Giuliani fixers who investigated Joe Biden do not just introduce the first criminal jeopardy into the cast of characters in the wider Ukraine intrigue. They also present a new moment of political peril for Trump, and raise new questions about the ethics and credibility of the company that he keeps.
The President was quick to distance himself from the two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two late walk-on players in the endless scandals swirling around his presidency.
“I don’t know those gentlemen. Now it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody,” the President told reporters at the White House.
“I don’t know them. I don’t know about them. I don’t know what they do but I don’t know, maybe they were clients of Rudy. You’d have to ask Rudy, I just don’t know.”
A new scandal engulfing the President’s outer orbit involving two men who are key to the Democratic investigation is the last thing the White House needed as polls show that public support for his impeachment and removal is growing.
But Thursday’s indictments also threaten to undermine the core argument that Trump and his closest aides, from Vice President Mike Pence to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have employed, given that the publicly available evidence of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine seem so damning.
The Trump team dismisses the notion that the President’s pressure on Ukraine was what it appears to be from a transcript of his call to President Volodymyr Zelensky — an effort to dig up dirt on Biden, his possible 2020 election opponent — in a possible abuse of power.
Rather, they argue, Trump had somehow developed an urge to stamp out corruption in Ukraine — a story that critics say is unlikely given his lack of interest in the topic prior to the Ukraine situation.
It’s going to be even harder now for his aides to sell the spin with a straight face because at the very moment the President is complaining that the former vice president is up to his ears in graft in Kiev, two men acting on behalf of his personal lawyer have been accused of the very same offense.
That reality may also put Giuliani’s spot in Trump’s inner circle in doubt even as a second bombshell emerges about the President’s bid to use his power to persuade ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help one of the former New York mayor’s personal clients — another scheme that sources say dragged in the President.
There may also be fears inside the White House that other activity by Giuliani that hasn’t yet reported could emerge and become an even greater political liability for Trump — even if the President is not directly involved. There is also the risk that this episode will spur new Democratic investigations into Giuliani that could uncover new scandals about his behavior and cooperation with Trump.
“It really tightens the noose of scrutiny on Giuliani … you just don’t know where it is going to go with these folks,” said Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor who is now a CNN legal analyst, referring to Parnas and Fruman. “They are likely to become cooperating witnesses. If they become cooperating witnesses, they could yield very valuable information about Giuliani as well as what impetus they had or direction from Trump himself.”
Giuliani’s lunch with the suspects
Giuliani has told CNN however that Parnas and Fruman introduced him to former and current Ukrainian officials who provided information that the former New York mayor claims is damaging to some of Trump’s political enemies, including Biden.
Trump leapt on such catnip — even though there is no indication of any wrong doing by the former vice president or his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Neither Giuliani nor Trump were named in the indictments, as White House lawyers quickly pointed out. And Trump insisted he did not know either of the two men.
Biden campaign: ‘The tide is turning’
A broader picture of Trump, through his association with Giuliani, yet again being linked with shady political operators, is a gift for Democrats building a picture of presidential corruption.
Biden is already exploiting Thursday’s events.
“The tide is turning,” his campaign wrote in a fundraising pitch. “These Trump allies who helped Rudy Giuliani try to smear Joe Biden in Ukraine will face a court of law and the Trump Administration is facing an impeachment inquiry.”
The indictment of the Giuliani associates deals another blow to Trump’s mantra — meant to signal he is stifling the corrupting influence of big money on politics — “drain the swamp.” By associating himself with such characters, through Giuliani, Trump might more accurately be described as populating the swamp.
Parnas and Fruman are just the latest operators seeking entry to Trump’s orbit who have been tainted by allegations of corruption — and it’s not the first time Ukraine is involved.
The President’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was jailed for fraud, after being convicted of hiding millions in dollars in earnings from his back door lobbying work in Kiev.
And the President’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is also doing time, partly for his role in making pre-election hush payments to women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.
In each of these cases, the President’s supporters claim that the wrongdoing is on the part of others, not the President. But in the case of Cohen, Trump was effectively named as an unindicted co-conspirator in campaign finance regulations. And the fate of such men calls into question his claims that he collects “only the best people” around him.
The latest drama is a reminder that from the start of his political career, allegations of corruption and influence trading have clung to the President — in previous scrapes from the one that might cause him to be only the third US President to be formally impeached.
It might also indicate that Giuliani’s position at his shoulder is becoming politically untenable, since he keeps introducing new controversies to a White House that is already struggling to stay afloat.
The businessman, Reza Zarrab, had ties to top Turkish government officials, who had pushed the US to drop charges that Zarrab had violated US sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. He was a client of Giuliani’s.
A person briefed on the meeting said that the President invited Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, the former attorney general, to make their pitch to the former secretary of state.
After the meeting Tillerson mentioned the discussion to then-chief of staff John Kelly, who was not present, noting that it was a deal he could not support.
On the face of it, the encounter appears to be a clear example of Giuliani using his relationship with the President to pursue a personal or business goal — in a way that risks Trump’s best interests — supposedly the sole concern of a contracted lawyer.
And it will raise new questions about whether the President again abused his power with an apparent effort to consummate the deal.