WASHINGTON — Though her removal as US ambassador to Ukraine was a key element of the impeachment inquiry, the details around Marie Yovanovitch’s recall have remained murky.
Yovanovitch, who testified before Congress in November, said her “well-being” and “security” were among the reasons she was told by a State Department official to get on the next flight to Washington last spring. But she learned few other details — other than President Donald Trump’s monthslong desire to see her gone — when she returned.
Months later, the career foreign service officer found herself before a panel of impeachment investigators, growing emotional as she talked about the job she lost, despite being told she had done nothing wrong.
This week, however, a trove of messages released by the House shed light on the lengthy campaign by Lev Parnas, a key player in the Ukrainian shadow campaign at the heart of the president’s impeachment, to see Yovanovitch ousted from her post in Kyiv. Hundreds of pages of texts and WhatsApp messages show the effort was more widespread within powerful Republican circles than previously known and raise questions about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s involvement as well.
The messages, turned over by Parnas recently as part of the impeachment inquiry, also make clear why he and others wanted Yovanovitch removed: She was a roadblock to the Ukrainian investigations sought by Parnas, Trump, and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. “The only motivation” in getting her dismissed was to pave the way for a probe into former vice president Joe Biden and his family, Parnas said this week — echoing comments Giuliani made in December.
The documents even raise the specter of a more sinister operation directed at Yovanovitch, with messages from a Republican congressional candidate indicating that the ambassador was under surveillance in Ukraine before her recall in April. Parnas told MSNBC he didn’t take seriously the messages from Robert Hyde, who is running for a House seat in Connecticut. But the messages have reportedly caught the eye of the FBI, as well as the Ukrainian government, which announced Thursday that it had opened a criminal investigation.
A lawyer for Parnas, who was indicted on campaign finance charges along with his business partner Igor Fruman in October, did not answer a series of questions about the effort to get Yovanovitch recalled. Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment.
Parnas curried favor with prominent Republicans in the spring of 2018 with a flurry of hefty donations and immediately used those newfound connections to advocate against Yovanovitch, a longtime State Department employee who had served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and a critic of Ukrainian corruption.
In May of that year, Parnas and Fruman met with then-Rep. Pete Sessions, an influential Texas Republican, and blasted Yovanovitch. Then, as BuzzFeed News first reported last summer, Sessions wrote a letter to Pompeo, urging him to dismiss the ambassador. “I have received notice from close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current administration,” he wrote. Sessions has claimed that he was referring to “congressional colleagues” in his letter, not the Soviet-born businessmen.
Around that time, Parnas and Fruman had “committed to raise $20,000” for an unnamed member of Congress — identifiable in their indictment as Sessions — according to federal prosecutors. The men also contributed thousands of their own money to Sessions’ reelection campaign in an effort to advance their interests and those of an unnamed Ukrainian government official. Those interests, prosecutors said, included removing the ambassador.
The messages released this week suggest Parnas spent time with Sessions again later that year. In November, he told Giuliani that he was bringing Sessions along to smoke cigars with them at Shelly’s Back Room, a lounge near the White House. Parnas spent more than $500 there that night, BuzzFeed News previously reported.
But it wasn’t until three months later that the campaign to get Yovanovitch fired heated up. “Is there absolute commitment for HER to be gone this week?” Victoria Toensing, a lawyer who worked with Parnas and Giuliani, texted both men on Feb. 10.
“Yes not sure how absolute[.] Will get a reading in morning and call you,” Giuliani replied. “Pompeii [sic] is now aware of it. Talked to him on Friday.”
The messages appear to be a reference to Yovanovitch and “Pompeii” is likely Pompeo, who is only known to have spoken with Giuliani as early as March. Giuliani and the State Department did not respond to questions about the messages and the alleged Feb. 8 conversation.
A week later, texts between Toensing and Parnas alluded to the ambassador and a meeting with the “big guy.”
"Did he [Rudy] meet with the guy re Amb?" said Toensing, who refers to Yovanovitch as the “Wicket [sic] Witch” in a later text.
"I am still waiting on that,” Parnas replied. “Meeting with big guy in 4 hours."
After Parnas said he had left the meeting, Toensing asked, "Was he successful re Amb?"
"[T]his week," Parnas wrote.
Texts between the pair also allude to a retainer for Toensing and her husband Joe diGenova. The pair are listed as having been “retained” at $100,000 per month in Parnas’s handwritten notes that were also released by the House this week, but the details of the arrangement are unclear. Toensing and diGenova did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The next month, Parnas corresponded with a different powerful government official — this time, a Ukrainian one who had soured on Yovanovitch. The ambassador had publicly criticized the Ukrainian government’s efforts to tackle corruption, leading Yuriy Lutsenko, then the country’s prosecutor general, to accuse her of giving him a list of people not to prosecute. Lutsenko later retracted the claim.
In conversations with Parnas, Lutsenko offered damaging information on the Bidens and explained why he wanted the ambassador removed.
“It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam — you are bringing into question all my allegations. Including about B,” Lutsenko told Parnas in March, according to a translation by the House Intelligence Committee. “B” appears to be a reference to either Biden or Burisma, the Ukrainian company that employed Biden’s son, Hunter.
At the same time, Parnas was talking to Hyde, the Connecticut congressional candidate, who suggested he was in touch with people who were monitoring Yovanovitch in Ukraine.
“Can’t believe Trumo [sic] hasn’t fired this bitch. I’ll get right in that,” Hyde said.
Hours later, Hyde sent Parnas a screengrab showing a conversation he was having about Yovanovitch with someone using a Belgian phone number. A Dutch citizen and Trump supporter named Anthony de Caluwe issued a statement to the New York Times on Saturday saying he was the person corresponding with Hyde.
“My contacts are checking,” de Caluwe told Hyde in the messages. “I will give you the address next week.”
Hyde then sent the message to Parnas. “She under [sic] heavy protection outside Kiev,” Hyde said.
“I know crazy shit,” Parnas replied.
Two days later, Hyde sent Parnas another update from de Caluwe with an apparent reference to her location. “The guys over they [sic] asked me what I would like to do and what is in it for them,” Hyde told Parnas.
Hyde continued to send updates about the ambassador’s purported activities, claiming that she was at an address next to the embassy. “They will let me know when she’s on the move,” Hyde said. “Perfect,” Parnas replied.
“They are willing to help if we/you would like a price,” Hyde wrote. “Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money...what I was told.”
“Lol,” Parnas responded.
Six days after Hyde began telling Parnas about the ambassador’s location, Hyde passed on another update from the unnamed man. “Hey brother do we stand down??? Or you still need intel be safe,” the man wrote. Parnas replied with a link to a news story.
Hyde, Parnas, and de Caluwe have downplayed the messages since the House released them this week. Parnas said Hyde was “drunk all the time” and possibly trying to make himself appear important, while Hyde has attacked Parnas for his history of financial problems. In his statement Saturday, de Caluwe claimed he was "not involved in any surveillance of any Americans" and that his messages with Hyde were "just a part of a ridiculous banter."
In March, Parnas also used his relationship with a well-connected official at a pro-Trump super PAC to suggest materials for Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to tweet.
“What should I send don to tweet,” Joseph Ahearn, the director of development at America First Action, wrote to Parnas on March 20. Parnas then sent a series of links, including a story from the Hill featuring Lutsenko and a tweet from Fox News host Laura Ingraham about alleged efforts by unnamed US ambassadors “to take down Trump.”
“Have jr retweet it,” Parnas wrote.
“Sent,” Ahearn replied a minute later.
Four days later, Parnas sent Ahearn another link — this time, to a story that referred to Yovanovitch by name. “Calls Grow to Remove Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine,” the headline read. The article featured comments from diGenova and the letter Sessions had sent the year before. The same day, Trump Jr. tweeted the article.
America First Action declined to comment. The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about Trump Jr.
Ahearn was key in setting up a $325,000 donation from Parnas and Fruman to the super PAC — one of the other contributions that eventually landed the pair in jail.
The media blitz in March had worked, in part: Yovanovitch was told in the weeks after that her term wouldn’t be extended, she told House investigators during her deposition in October. But she said she understood at the time that she would stay in her post until the summer.
Meanwhile, senior State Department official Phil Reeker told Yovanovitch that Pompeo or “somebody around him” would call Fox News host Sean Hannity, who was among the right-wing media personalities amplifying the coordinated attacks against her, to try to understand the source of the allegations.
“I understand that that call was made,” Yovanovitch said. “I don't know whether it was the Secretary or somebody else in his inner circle. And for a time, you know, things kind of simmered down.” Hannity has denied the call took place.
But the firestorm resumed the following month, after the Ukrainian election. It was then that Parnas finally got what he wanted. “He fired her again,” Giuliani wrote to Parnas on April 23. “I pray it happens this time,” Parnas replied.
The White House did not answer questions about the messages, including on what Giuliani meant by “again.” Instead, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham took aim at Parnas in a statement to BuzzFeed News, saying he is “a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison.” She also said that “the President did nothing wrong.”
The night Giuliani told him Yovanovitch had been fired, Parnas also texted a fellow Florida businessman with whom he had spoken about the ambassador previously. “Working hard to save our country my brother !!!!” Parnas wrote. “The bomb is dropping tomorrow[.]"
The next day, Yovanovitch says she received a late-night call from a senior State Department official telling her to return to the US. There were concerns about her “up the street” at the White House, she says she was told.
Her recall wouldn’t be publicly announced until May 6, nearly two weeks later, when the State Department issued a statement claiming she was ending her posting “as planned.”
“She just got recalled,” Parnas wrote to Tommy Hicks Jr., another powerful GOP operative with whom he had been in touch in the months prior. Hicks, the cochair of the Republican National Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
A lawyer for Yovanovitch declined to comment.
But even then, Parnas’s efforts weren’t quite through. On May 14, a month before the pair’s conversations seem to have ended, Parnas urged Hicks to use his connections to make sure Yovanovitch’s replacement would be different. “It’s more important than ever to get a good ambassador that’s loyal to our president in there,” he wrote to Hicks. “[P]lease make sure you pass on the message[,] every ear more important than ever.”
Christopher Miller provided additional reporting.
This story has been updated with a statement from Anthony de Caluwe.