Dispatch December 4, 2019

The ‘BLT Team’ at the Center of Trump’s Extortion Scheme Is Linked to Nunes. Why Hasn’t He Recused Himself From the Investigation?

As the House of Representatives moves forward with its impeachment investigation, the circle of apparent co-conspirators keeps growing. We have now heard reports that there was a group of shadow advisers—including President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Lev Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman; attorneys Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing; “occasionally” top Rep. Devin Nunes (D-CA) aide Derek Harvey; and columnist and conspiracy theorist John Solomon—regularly meeting at the BLT Prime restaurant in Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C., to allegedly coordinate their efforts for Trump’s own benefit. (Parnas and Fruman have pleaded not guilty to unrelated campaign finance charges but have not commented on these allegations; Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing in his Ukraine dealings; Toensing, diGenova, and Harvey have not commented; and Solomon denied all involvement in “any campaign to pressure Ukraine.”)

That so-called “BLT team” is at the center of Trumps’ extortion scheme, as is the indicted Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a natural gas magnate and alleged “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.”

The House Intelligence Committee majority’s impeachment inquiry report released yesterday seems to have tied the BLT team to the top House Republican on the committee: Devin Nunes.

Nunes held multiple calls with members of the purported “BLT team” as at least some members were allegedly discussing Trump’s Ukraine scheme.

  • According to the House Intelligence Committee report, Nunes was coordinating with both Giuliani and Parnas earlier this year, although it is unclear what they discussed.
  • He had numerous phone conversations with both Parnas and Giuliani in early April, just as Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman were allegedly seeking to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and spread conspiracy theories about the Bidens and Burisma.
    • Nunes claimed he had talked to Giuliani about the Mueller investigation and said he didn’t remember talking to Parnas.
  • Giuliani also reportedly talked with two more people close to Nunes in May—staffer Derek Harvey and former staffer Kash Patel, who now works on Trump’s National Security Council—although it is unclear what they discussed.
    • Giuliani spoke with Harvey the same day that he called a White House switchboard number and talked to Solomon that day as well, although it is unclear what they discussed. Harvey has not commented.
  • Nunes’ repeated communication with these individuals points to the potential for his involvement in the very scheme that his committee is tasked with investigating. Yet, he continues to try and undermine the impeachment inquiry from his perch as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
    • Nunes has denied meeting or working with Parnas or any Ukrainians and has denied any involvement in the scheme. The report does not accuse him of any wrongdoing or crime.

Parnas and Fruman’s efforts around Ukraine went further than previously reported.

  • Parnas and Fruman’s work in Ukraine appears to center on an oil and gas business scheme, which reportedly led them to push for the ousting of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and for changes to the board of Ukraine’s natural gas company Naftogaz.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, that scheme was even more questionable than originally thought: Parnas and Fruman reportedly “tried to recruit a top Ukrainian energy official in March in a proposed takeover of the state oil-and-gas company, describing the company’s chief executive and the then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as part of ‘this Soros cartel’ working against President Trump.” Parnas and Fruman have not commented on these allegations, and it should be noted that Fiona Hill, the former top White House Russia adviser, testified to Congress that the connection between Yovanovitch and Soros is a conspiracy theory.
  • That also calls into question the resignation of Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who claims it was a coincidence that he announced his intent to resign right as news broke about his push to have one of his top donors placed on the board of Naftogaz.

Giuliani appears to be in deep legal trouble.

  • According to CNN, subpoenas in the reported federal investigation into Trump’s lawyer suggest “a broad investigation that could include criminal charges ranging from conspiracy, obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations and money laundering.” No formal investigation has been announced, no documents have been publicly released, and Giuliani has denied all wrongdoing.
  • The investigation reportedly includes a look into his business interests that, as recently as early this year, included potentially taking on Firtash as a client while simultaneously acting as Trump’s lawyer. It is unclear if Giuliani ever worked for Firtash.
  • Giuliani’s outreach to Firtash appears to have been a key part of his effort to help Trump extort Ukraine. According to The New York Times, Giuliani specifically reached out to Firtash for help pushing stories on the Bidens. Giuliani told The New York Times that he had “sought information helpful to Mr. Trump from a member of Mr. Firtash’s original legal team,” and Firtash has previously denied any communication with Giuliani.
  • Firtash claims he “had no information about the Bidens and had not financed the search for it.” Yet, at least one piece of Giuliani’s most-cited “evidence”—an affidavit from the disgraced former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin claiming Vice President Joe Biden had him fired for investigating Hunter—reportedly came from Firtash. (Firtash, currently fighting extradition from Vienna to the United States, has denied all charges against him, which relate to alleged racketeering activity.)

DiGenova and Toensing are now representing Firtash—and helping push pro-Trump conspiracy theories.

  • Instead of taking on Firtash as a personal client, Giuliani reportedly suggested he instead hire diGenova and Toensing, who have been helping Trump “off the books” by pushing conspiracy theories about the Bidens.
  • According to The New York Times, Firtash had an ulterior motive in the affair: Parnas told him that he could get “help with his Justice Department problems” by hiring diGenova and Toensing, whom Trump himself considered hiring in early 2018 as his Russia investigation defense team.
    • Firtash has previously deniedany relationship with Parnas and Fruman and any contact with Giuliani. Giuliani has denied any relationship with Firtash. DiGenova and Toensing also originally claimed that Parnas has not been paid by Firtash and have not commented on the allegation that they could help Firtash with his criminal case (although a spokesman for their firm stated that they took the case because they believed Firtash was innocent).
  • In the process, Firtash also reportedly hired Parnas, who apparently received not only a substantial referral fee but also a lucrative contract working as a translator between the lawyers and their new client. 

John Solomon has reportedly been coordinating his work with the rest of the BLT team, although he strongly denies the allegation.

  • Earlier this year, Giuliani gave the State Department a “dossier” of allegations involving Ukraine. That file included an email from March in which Solomon sent a draft of one of his Ukraine stories to diGenova, Toensing, and Parnas.
  • Solomon, whose penchant for pro-Trump conspiracy theories got his work moved from the news section of The Hill to the opinion section, claims the email was part of his routine fact-checking process.
  • Politico later reported that Solomon is diGenova and Toensing’s client, which helps explain why they were on the email—but doesn’t explain why he also included Parnas, whose only connection to the pair is through their work for Firtash. Solomon has not commented on that question.

Questions remain about whether Derek Harvey may now be a fact witness in the impeachment investigation. And his boss might be, too.

  • Nunes’ phone calls with Giuliani and Parnas raise critical questions about whether he had any involvement in the scheme—and to what extent.
  • Nunes just filed a defamation lawsuit against CNN for its reporting on comments that Parnas made through his lawyer. Parnas reportedly revealed through his lawyer that he is willing to testify before Congress that, with Parnas’ help, Nunes allegedly set up a meeting in Vienna with Shokin to facilitate the smear campaign.
  • According to CNN, Parnas is willing to testify that Nunes scheduled a trip to Ukraine to meet with officials offering dirt on the Bidens earlier this year—then scrapped it in favor of phone calls and Skype when he realized that House ethics rules would have required alerting House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) about the trip.
  • Nunes has vehemently denied these claims and called CNN’s story “a demonstrably false hit piece.” In addition to his lawsuit against CNN, he has publicly denied being in Vienna and has called the story “fake news.”
  • The lawsuit also refers to the claims involving Harvey as false. It does not appear that Harvey has commented on the allegations, but Nunes has said Harvey had no involvement, and Parnas’ lawyer never mentioned him.

Trump continues to brazenly obstruct Congress, citing executive privilege to block current and former administration officials from complying with congressional subpoenas. But that claim wouldn’t apply to the BLT team, since none of the alleged members actually worked for the White House. Congress can—and should—call these potential informal advisers to see what additional information, if any, they can provide about Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine for personal political gain.

Moreover, the potential involvement of the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee raises serious questions about whether he can continue to perform his duties while he and his staff could be key players in the investigation themselves. Even the appearance of a conflict is too much. It’s time for Devin Nunes to step down.