Ex-Giuliani Ally Gained Easy Access to Trump’s Orbit, Texts Show
The messages, written in Russian and shared on WhatsApp in October 2018, were celebratory. “How is Washington?” Andrey Kukushkin asked in a …
The messages, written in Russian and shared on WhatsApp in October 2018, were celebratory.
“How is Washington?” Andrey Kukushkin asked in a message to an associate, Igor Fruman.
“Everything is great!!” Mr. Fruman wrote back. “We are taking over the country!!!!” Soon after, Mr. Fruman’s business partner, Lev Parnas, provided some evidence: a picture of himself, beaming as he stood between Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Three years later, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Kukushkin are on trial in Manhattan, accused of funneling foreign money into American political campaigns in an attempt to buy favorable treatment for a fledgling marijuana business.
Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, who pleaded guilty in the case in September, are perhaps best known for their roles assisting President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, as he led a shadow campaign in 2018 and 2019 to pressure Ukraine to investigate President Biden, then a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
But a trove of messages presented at the trial show just how easily Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman ingratiated themselves into Mr. Trump’s orbit using campaign contributions and the promise of more to follow. Almost immediately, the messages suggest, they used their newfound proximity to power — and pictures with some of the biggest names in Trump world — as currency to advance their own business interests.
There is little doubt that Mr. Parnas genuinely wanted to help Republican candidates win elections. But the messages suggest he saw the campaign donations largely as a pathway to influence and political connections, and that he and Mr. Fruman used those connections to persuade Mr. Kukushkin and Andrey Muraviev, a Russian tycoon, to give them more money for more donations.
An indictment in the case charges Mr. Parnas and Mr. Kukushkin with conspiring to make political donations to two state candidates in Nevada using money from Mr. Muraviev. And Mr. Parnas lied about the source of a $325,000 donation to a pro-Trump super PAC, prosecutors have said.
But prosecutors have not said that any candidates knowingly accepted questionable donations from Mr. Parnas or Mr. Fruman. Adam Laxalt, who was running for governor of Nevada, testified that he became suspicious of a $10,000 donation in Mr. Fruman’s name and decided to send a check in that amount to the United States Treasury.
The messages, along with statements in court by witnesses, help explain how Mr. Parnas and his associates rose from relative obscurity to become sought-after political donors with ties to some of Mr. Trump’s most prominent loyalists.
According to testimony, Mr. Parnas initially made a name for himself as a political donor during Mr. Trump’s first run for president, contributing $50,000 .
His largess put Mr. Parnas on the Republican fund-raising radar, said Joseph Ahearn, finance director for the pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action, Inc.
“He was someone who was pointed out to me,” Mr. Ahearn testified. “He was connected politically, financially well off.”
In May 2018, a company started by Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman was reported as giving $325,000 to America First Action. Prosecutors say the donation broke the law because it was given in the name of an energy company that the two men had recently started but was actually from a loan Mr. Fruman took out on a condo he owned.
In June, according to records introduced at trial, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman made contributions, ranging from $100 to $50,000, to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee; Friends of Ron DeSantis; Joe Wilson for Congress; Pete Sessions for Congress; and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
By July, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman were also regularly exchanging messages with Mr. Kukushkin, who worked with Mr. Muraviev.
Prosecutors said that the four planned to operate a legal cannabis business that would be supported by money from Mr. Muraviev and benefit from political favor generated by campaign contributions.
Soon Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman were circulating pictures of themselves with people in the president’s orbit. On June 20, Mr. Fruman sent photos that showed him and Mr. Parnas with political figures, including Mr. Trump, to Mr. Kukushkin. The next month Mr. Kukushkin sent Mr. Muraviev a picture that showed Mr. Fruman with Donald Trump Jr. and Mr. DeSantis.
In September the first of two wire transfers for $500,000 was sent from a company that prosecutors said was controlled by Mr. Muraviev to one in suburban Tarrytown, N.Y., connected to Mr. Fruman’s brother. Early the next month Mr. Fruman sent a photo of himself with Mr. DeSantis and the words “Today Florida become ours forever!!!!” to Mr. Parnas, Mr. Kukushkin and Mr. Muraviev.
When Mr. DeSantis was elected governor of Florida that November, Mr. Kukushkin sent a message to Mr. Parnas, Mr. Muraviev and Mr. Fruman: “Congratulation to everybody on victory in Florida!!!” he wrote. “When can we get a license and find the stores?” Recreational marijuana remains illegal in Florida.
But by the fall, the two sides were already bickering over money, the messages show, with Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman pressing for a second $500,000 transfer and Mr. Kukushkin asking for “actual results.” On Oct. 9 Mr. Kukushkin wrote: “Our contributions are kind of way too much.”
The next day, Mr. Parnas sent the picture of himself with Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner. Soon after, another $500,000 arrived in Tarrytown from a second company prosecutors said was controlled by Mr. Muraviev.
At the same time, at least one of the political figures whom Mr. Parnas was courting began to wonder whether he really planned to contribute the money he had seemed to promise.
Mr. Laxalt, the candidate for Nevada governor, who was also the co-chair of the Trump campaign in the state, sent repeated texts to Mr. Parnas about money.
Eventually, in early November, Mr. Laxalt received a donation for $10,000, reported as being from Mr. Fruman. Prosecutors have contended that donation was unlawful because it can be tied to money provided by Mr. Muraviev.
Asked by Mr. Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph A. Bondy, why he had kept chasing Mr. Parnas for money, Mr. Laxalt suggested that was just part of running for public office, adding that he followed up with several people about pledges.
But after he lost the race for governor, Mr. Laxalt told the F.B.I. that he had wondered whether Mr. Parnas was serious about donating or was only a hanger-on. Mr. Laxalt said he began to suspect that Mr. Parnas was someone who only savored the aura of politics — and was really “just there for the pictures.”