As Rudy Giuliani searched for damaging information on the Bidens in Ukraine, waged shadow diplomatic campaigns in Venezuela and Turkey, and spoke regularly to President Donald Trump about all of it, a 19-year-old law student was quietly watching and soaking it all in.
The saga of Lev Parnas, a close former Giuliani associate and fixer, is familiar by now: Parnas helped Giuliani investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine, an endeavor that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment.
Unknown until this week, however, was that Parnas’ son Aaron was present for much of it. And he has now written an eyewitness account of many of the back-channel dealings conducted by Giuliani and a small group of his confidants to help their clients — chief among them the president of the United States.
“I had no intention of writing this book before a few weeks ago,” the younger Parnas, who recently graduated from George Washington University Law School in D.C., said in an interview. “But after I finished the bar exam, I began thinking about how young Republicans and young people in general often feel like they don't have a place in the political system and might not want to vote. So I thought if they were able to see what I saw — maybe it would help them make a decision.”
The 153-page memoir, titled “TRUMP FIRST: How the President and his associates turned their backs on me and my family,” traces Parnas’ journey from an enthusiastic Trump supporter in 2016 — he even volunteered for the campaign in Florida — to an eager Biden voter in 2020.
But unlike other ex-Trump allies who have since turned on the president and written books about it — like former national security adviser John Bolton, former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor (a.k.a. “Anonymous”), and former Trump communications director Omarosa Manigault Newman — Parnas describes spending far more time in Trump’s Washington hotel and its swanky steakhouse than in the White House.
But the picture that emerges is arguably as instructive as the insider accounts about policymaking in Trump’s Washington. In the first chapter, Parnas describes sitting in on a phone call between Republican Congressman Pete Sessions — who is running for reelection in Texas — and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as they attempted, from a private room on the second floor of BLT Prime, to negotiate a back-channel deal for Maduro to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S. peacefully.
“Maduro jokingly replied: ‘I want to watch the Dallas Cowboys,’” Parnas writes.
In a nod to the group’s concerns about its unofficial talks being exposed, Parnas describes Sessions as being so worried about the CIA possibly listening in on the call that the Texas lawmaker said he’d be discarding his phone afterward.
“At some point, Congressman Sessions agreed to visit Venezuela in an unofficial capacity with Rudy Giuliani accompanying him,” Parnas recounts. (Sessions was later referred to as “Congressman-1” in the indictment of Lev Parnas and his business associate Igor Fruman, who allegedly made illegal campaign contributions to Sessions. Sessions has denied knowing about the scheme.)
In all, Parnas—an aspiring lawyer who told the Palm Beach Post in a 2017 profile that “one day I hope to be president of the United States”—says he attended “dozens of meetings” over less than two years with his father, Giuliani and the rest of the BLT Prime Team, as he says they called themselves. The team included Fruman, conservative lawyers Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, and conservative columnist John Solomon.
Despite their attempts to operate secretly, the group was highly indiscrete: In Chapter 10, Parnas describes listening in on a phone call Toensing and diGenova had with Attorney General William Barr about the couple’s client, Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. Barr was put on speakerphone without his knowledge, Parnas writes.
“It was weird how comfortable they were with me being at these meetings,” Parnas said in the interview. “I didn’t have any foreign policy or government experience. I was like a fly on the wall.” He writes that “the first shadow diplomacy campaign to assist the Trump presidency that my father was part of” dated all the way back to Trump’s inauguration, when he says Lev participated in a number of high-level meetings with individuals close to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan as they attempted to forge a relationship with the new administration.
“This secondary, quasi-State Department acted behind the scenes, conducting diplomacy in the shadow of the administration’s official foreign policy goals,” Parnas writes.
Giuliani himself regularly “disparaged the State Department,” according to Parnas, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom he believed was hindering his foreign policy efforts and considered “the epitome of the deep state.”
“Many of the times when the Team wanted something accomplished, like establishing this back channel with Venezuela, their efforts would not be successful,” he writes. “The first person they blamed was Mike Pompeo and his ‘Deep State Department’ as they called it.”
One of their objectives was to oust the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, by waging a smear campaign against her that ultimately did lead the State Department to recall her from Kyiv in May 2019 — a move that factored into Trump’s impeachment. In his book, Parnas recalls an April 30, 2019 dinner where Fruman revealed a recording he’d just made of Trump at a private roundtable event ordering an aide to “get rid of” Yovanovitch.
The conversation had initially been about Ukraine’s oil and gas reserves, Parnas recalls his father telling him — a fact that “surprised the president,” who seemed “unaware of the availability of oil in a strategic geopolitical ally.”
Parnas was also a witness to Giuliani’s dirt-digging missions targeting Joe and Hunter Biden, during which his father was with Giuliani “almost every day.”
“Since they were inseparable during this time, I would often meet with the two of them together,” Parnas writes. “During our meetings, I was able to witness Rudy talk with the President multiple times on the phone, often doing so for short periods of time in front of me before moving away. ... It was clear to me that everything the Mayor and my father did through the summer months of 2019 related to Ukraine and the Bidens was done at the direction and with the consent of President Trump.”
Trump immediately distanced himself from Lev Parnas and Fruman upon their arrest in October 2019 on campaign finance charges, telling reporters: “I don’t know those gentlemen.” Lawmakers who had received donations from Parnas did the same, including House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who rerouted a contribution from Parnas to charity after his arrest.
Parnas’ book is in some ways an attempt to vindicate his father, who is in the middle of a legal battle and can’t tell the full story in his own words. An anecdote about McCarthy, for example, is subtly biting, given McCarthy’s claims to reporters that they’d met only once for a photo op.
“Walking over to McCarthy, I believed that he would be cordial, as he would any other supporters of his,” Parnas writes of one afternoon he was hanging out at the Trump hotel with his father. “Instead, within seconds of spotting us, McCarthy recognized my father, yelling ‘Hey Lev, how are you doing today?’ and proceeding to give him a bear hug. Seeing McCarthy’s familiarity with my father pleasantly surprised me.”