WASHINGTON — The April 2018 dinner was designed to be an intimate affair, an opportunity for a handful of big donors to a super PAC allied with President Donald Trump to personally interact with the president and his eldest son.
In an exclusive suite known as the Trump Townhouse at Trump’s Washington hotel, the group — including New York developer Jack Nicklaus III, the grandson of the famous golfer — snapped photos, dined and chatted about their pet issues with the president for about 90 minutes.
Among those in attendance were two Florida business executives who had little history with Republican politics but had snagged a spot at the dinner with the promise of a major contribution to the America First super PAC. They turned the conversation to Ukraine, according to people familiar with the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private dinner.
One of the men, Lev Parnas, has described to associates that he and his business partner, Igor Fruman, told Trump at the dinner that they thought the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was unfriendly to the president and his interests.
According to Parnas, the president reacted strongly to the news: Trump immediately suggested that then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who had been in the Foreign Service for 32 years and served under Democratic and Republican presidents, should be fired, people familiar with his account said.
Parnas declined to comment. Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Fruman, declined to comment.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Parnas’ account of personally discussing Ukraine with Trump more than 18 months ago suggests that he and Fruman had more personal interaction with the president — and potentially more influence over his views on that country — than the White House has acknowledged.
Trump has said he does not know the two men, who later partnered with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to hunt for damaging material about Democrats in Ukraine before being charged last month with funneling foreign money into campaign contributions. They have pleaded not guilty.
“Now it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody,” the president said the day after they were arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia last month, adding: “I don’t know what they do, but, I don’t know, maybe they were clients of Rudy.”
But the two men had personal interactions with Trump, both before and after they met Giuliani in the summer of 2018. Those included encounters at a Florida fundraiser in 2016 and during a visit to Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private estate, according to social media accounts and people who encountered the men.
Parnas’ account of the 2018 dinner is the first indication that he or Fruman interacted directly with Trump about Ukraine. His description of their conversation suggests that the Boca Raton businessman, who emigrated as a child from Ukraine, could hold key information about Trump’s pressure campaign on his home country — an effort that set in motion the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
The president was updated regularly by Giuliani on what he was learning about Parnas’ and Fruman’s efforts in Ukraine, according to a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
“It’s just not true that he had no idea who these guys were. He knew Lev particularly,” the person said.
In February, Parnas and Fruman met with Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, according to Edward MacMahon, a lawyer for Parnas. They were doing so, he said, on a request from Giuliani, who was acting on orders from Trump.
MacMahon said the two proposed that in exchange for a state visit, the Ukrainian president would announce investigations into former vice president Joe Biden’s son and an unfounded theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential race.
In an interview last week, Giuliani declined to comment on his interactions with the two men, citing the criminal investigation. But he said Parnas and Fruman already had met the president when he first encountered them in summer 2018. “I did not introduce them to the president,” he said.
In an interview with The Washington Post before his arrest, Parnas said he got involved in the Trump campaign because he admired the real estate developer, whom he said he had met several times before the election.
“I think he’s going to go down as one of the greatest presidents ever, even with all this negativity,” he said.
Parnas’ attorneys have now indicated that he is disappointed with Trump’s efforts to distance himself, suggesting that he may be willing to cooperate with the congressional inquiry.
“There isn’t anything that Parnas did in the Ukraine relative to the Bidens or the 2016 election that he wasn’t asked to do by Giuliani, who was acting on the direction of the president,” MacMahon said.
But it is not clear whether Democrats are interested in negotiating for his testimony, given the criminal case filed against him in New York.
Prosecutors have alleged that Parnas and Fruman gave campaign contributions to the pro-Trump super PAC and other political committees in an effort “to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working.”
Yovanovitch testified that she was told by a Ukrainian official in February that Parnas and Fruman were working with Giuliani and that they were “interested in having a different ambassador at post, I guess for — because they wanted to have business dealings in Ukraine or additional business dealings.”
An attorney for Parnas, Joseph Bondy, said that he “denies having participated in the President and Mr. Guiliani’s efforts to remove Ambassador Yovanovitch at the request of Ukrainian government officials or to benefit his and Mr. Fruman’s prospective liquefied natural gas business interests in Ukraine.”
However, people who spoke to Parnas and Fruman said that they spoke often of their displeasure with Yovanovitch and that they had personally discussed the ambassador with Trump on more than one occasion.
“They were constantly complaining about her,” said one person in touch with the duo since summer 2018.
The person said they were “constantly shellshocked” that Trump had stated clearly to them that he wanted to get rid of Yovanovitch, but that many months passed and she remained in place.
In an interview with The Post last month, Giuliani said Trump blamed the State Department for slow-walking his desire to remove Yovanovitch. “The president fired her three times and thought she was gone,” he said. “The president thought she was gone long before she was actually fired.”
More than a year after the dinner at the Trump hotel, Yovanovitch was summarily removed from her post following a campaign in conservative media to paint her as an Obama administration holdover opposed to Trump. She testified that she was told by State Department officials that she had done nothing wrong but that the president had been advocating for her removal since summer 2018. She denied that she been in any way disloyal to Trump.
Two months after Yovanovitch’s removal, Zelensky and Trump discussed her in the phone conversation that sparked calls for Trump’s impeachment. According to a rough transcript released by the White House, Zelensky told Trump: “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%.” It is not clear when Trump first told Zelensky about the ambassador.
Trump responded, “Well, she’s going to go through some things.”
The president’s hostility to Yovanovitch appears to have begun even earlier than previously known. He reacted strongly when her role in Ukraine came up with Parnas and Fruman at the April 30, 2018, dinner at his Washington hotel, according to Parnas’ account.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was also in attendance. Alan Futerfas, an attorney for Trump Jr., said in a statement that “over the past few years, he has attended literally hundreds of donor events. Nothing about this one stands out.”
The president’s son stoked conservative anger toward Yovanovitch this spring by retweeting an article calling for her removal and saying the country needed “less of these jokers as ambassadors.”
The Trump hotel dinner was one of several events for top donors, designed to show that the super PAC was the right venue for supporters to send large checks, according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private dinner.
Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, said the roundtable dinner was “typical of the dinners arranged for potential donors.”
About 15 people were in attendance, including Nicklaus, according to people familiar with the event. Also in attendance, they said, was Stanley Gale, a real estate developer from New York, whose company developed a massive complex in South Korea, including a golf course designed by Nicklaus. Gale pitched the president on using his property to host a summit with the leader of North Korea, according to people familiar with the dinner.
Nicklaus did not respond to requests for comment. Gale declined to comment.
In addition to Nicklaus, other attendees included Tommy Hicks, a Republican fundraiser who is close friends with Trump Jr., as well as Roy Bailey, a Texas businessman who has served as a top Trump fundraiser and is close to Giuliani, the people said. Neither responded to requests for comment.
After the dinner, Parnas posted photos of it on social media, erroneously tagging it as having been held at the White House.
In one image, he stood with Trump between two American flags, giving a thumbs-up.
“Thank you President Trump !!!” he wrote, adding, “incredible dinner and even better conversation.”
Washington Post writers Deanna Paul, Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.