WASHINGTON ― It was April 2018, and longtime Rep. Pete Sessions could already tell he was in the race of his life.
The Texas Republican had represented parts of north Dallas for 21 years, but the suburban revolt against President Donald Trump was now threatening to end his congressional career. Hillary Clinton had beaten Trump in his district two years before, and Sessions was vulnerable.
So when the National Republican Congressional Committee contacted Sessions, asking if he wanted to attend a meet-and-greet fundraiser with the president and high-dollar donors at Mar-a-Lago, the answer was an easy yes. He needed all the help he could get.
Sessions was the only congressman at the April 20, 2018, event, which featured Trump and about three dozen other GOP elites, according to an NRCC document obtained by HuffPost. Among the group were Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee; Brad Parscale, who is now Trump’s reelection campaign manager; and Bill Edwards, the billionaire CEO of Mortgage Investors Corporation.
But also in the crowd that night were two then-lesser-known names: Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
Parnas and Fruman are the two Soviet-born U.S. citizens who were arrested this month as they attempted to leave the United States with one-way international tickets. They’re charged with trying to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians in order to influence U.S.-Ukraine relations, and they are thus far the biggest arrests in the Ukraine debacle.
Trump has said he doesn’t know Parnas and Fruman, but admitted there may be pictures of him with the men at a fundraiser. They were, at least, in the same room at the Mar-a-Lago event.
It’s also unclear how much time Parnas and Fruman spent talking to Sessions that night, though the federal indictment of the two men mentions they met “Congressman-1” at the event. Either way, they really didn’t need to talk much. They already shared an important connection: Rudy Giuliani. And through that relationship, Parnas and Fruman would later get a more intimate meeting with Sessions as part of their alleged scheme to disrupt U.S. foreign policy for personal gain.
It was around this time that Giuliani, serving as Trump’s personal lawyer, was also trying to create controversy around Hunter Biden sitting on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Giuliani hoped he could get Ukrainian officials to open an investigation into the son of former Vice President Joe Biden and that energy company. The investigation was supposed to stir up the suggestion of wrongdoing by the father, who, as vice president, pushed for the ouster of a Ukranian top prosecutor. Giuliani was looking for evidence to fuel a conspiracy theory that Biden did so to aid his son.
But Parnas and Fruman had another goal for Giuliani: Get the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, removed.
The campaign by Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman to oust Yovanovitch appears to have come about through a confluence of interests. Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer, was an obstacle to Giuliani’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Parnas and Fruman wanted her gone because she stood in the way of their reported scheme to purge the leadership of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national oil and gas company. The indictment of the two men asserts that Parnas’ efforts to remove the ambassador were also made, at least partially, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.
The plan involved replacing Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolev with company executive Andrew Fovorov, NBC News reports. In exchange for making Fovorov the CEO, Parnas and Fruman wanted to be cut in on a liquified natural gas deal — a deal they believed would happen if Yovanovitch was pushed out. Yovanovitch supported the ongoing anti-corruption reforms that Kobolev had implemented, but with her and Kobolev gone, Parnas and Fruman believed they could sell American natural gas to Ukraine and get rich.
That plan never quite worked out, despite Yovanovitch being recalled from her post in May 2019. According to NBC News, Fovorov rejected the scheme, telling Parnas and Fruman that he was loyal to Kobolev.
Regardless, for his part, Giuliani received $500,000 from the company that Parnas had founded, Fraud Guarantee. That money opened a number of doors for Parnas and Fruman, including the one into Sessions’ office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
While Parnas and Fruman had a direct line to President Trump through Giuliani, they also sought last year to build congressional support for removing Yovanovitch. Giuliani had an answer for that, too.
One of Giuliani’s longtime business partners, Roy Bailey, was also a GOP megadonor. He also happened to be the campaign chairman for Pete Sessions’ 2018 reelection bid. That position was largely a figurehead role ― essentially it meant Bailey raised a lot of money for Sessions ― but it also meant Bailey could get almost anyone a meeting with the congressman.
Sessions has acknowledged that he had “a couple additional meetings” with Parnas and Fruman off Capitol Hill as well, but it was the May 9, 2018, meeting in his office that raised the eyebrows of investigators.
Whether Parnas and Fruman realized it or not, Sessions was the perfect mark. He had ties with virtually every other Republican representative. He was chairman of the influential House Rules Committee. He was a former chairman of the NRCC, where he helped a number of GOP members get elected. And he was a Texas Republican ― a brotherhood all its own, with its powerful tentacles wrapped around virtually every issue in Congress.
According to former staffers, Sessions, who would lose his reelection bid, was also impressionable enough to do exactly what Parnas and Fruman wanted. As any lobbyist could tell you, Sessions was a useful connection because he was willing to do things like, say, write a letter.
When Sessions met with Parnas and Fruman on May 9 last year, a source familiar with the conversation told HuffPost, Parnas and Fruman emphasized their love of Trump. They said they had actually worked with Trump’s father, Fred Trump ― Parnas previously told The New Yorker that he sold Trump Organization co-ops in his teens ― but they also brought up Yovanovitch, telling Sessions that she was bad-mouthing the president in Ukraine.
A U.S. ambassador in Ukraine deriding Trump was a curious issue for Sessions to take up. Sessions, who used to brag about being the congressional representative for George W. Bush, was always more of a Bush guy than a Trump fan.
But right after Sessions met with Parnas and Fruman, his staff began drafting a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Republican member of Congress who came to the House when Sessions was the NRCC chairman.
The letter to Pompeo, dated May 11, 2018, is simple and short. It says that Sessions has received “concrete evidence from close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration.”
Sessions does not name Parnas and Fruman. In fact, he said in a recent statement that “several congressional colleagues” told him the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was “disparaging President Trump.” He claimed that the congressional chatter was the impetus for his letter, not the meeting he had with Parnas and Fruman.
While it’s possible that Sessions heard from other members of Congress about Yovanovitch, it’s hard to imagine any lawmaker having “concrete evidence” of Yovanovitch privately expressing disdain for Trump. And the letter was sent just two days after Sessions’ meeting with Parnas and Fruman.
More to the point, Sessions writing letters at the behest of people he met with was standard operating procedure in his office. It would have been out of the ordinary if he didn’t offer to write a letter during the meeting, according to former staffers.
Sessions refused to answer questions on the record about last year’s meeting, telling HuffPost that he “had been asked not to do interviews.” A federal grand jury subpoenaed Sessions in October to testify about his role in the Ukraine affair, and Parnas and Fruman were arraigned around the same time as part of a case being pursued by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. They both pleaded not guilty.
Even if Parnas and Fruman didn’t mention money during their meeting with Sessions, the implication was clear. These were two men who were at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for the president’s top donors. They could be helpful to Sessions, if Sessions was helpful to them.
The indictment filed against Parnas and Fruman alleges that they “committed to raise $20,000 or more for a then-sitting U.S. congressman (‘Congressman-1’), who had also been the beneficiary of approximately $3 million in independent expenditures by Committee-1 during the 2018 election cycle.”
Pete Sessions is “Congressman-1,” and “Committee-1” is the Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action, which ended up spending more than $3 million to support Sessions. Parnas and Fruman donated $325,000 to America First Action. They also gave $2,700 each to Sessions’ general election campaign a few weeks after their May meeting ― the maximum direct contribution allowed by law.
Those contributions violated campaign finance laws banning anyone from making a contribution in someone else’s name, according to the federal indictment. Parnas and Fruman made the $325,000 contribution to Trump’s super PAC through a shell corporation called Global Energy Producers LLC. Federal investigators say this company did no business and was not even active at the time it made the contribution.
As for the contributions to Sessions’ campaign, those made by Parnas were actually funded by Fruman, according to the indictment. This allowed Fruman to evade campaign contribution limits and donate more than the max to the congressman. Through a series of wire transfers, Fruman gave Parnas the $2,700 for the donation to Sessions, as well as $11,000 for a contribution to the NRCC fundraising committee, Protect the House, which was also meant to help Sessions.
Sessions has not been indicted and is not alleged to have known that Fruman and Parnas were evading contribution limits.
Federal prosecutors also allege that Fruman concealed some of his donations by misspelling his name as “Furman.” He went even further in his April 27, 2018, donation to the House Majority Trust, a joint committee of the NRCC and the RNC for which Sessions was helping raise money at Mar-a-Lago on April 20. As The Daily Beast reported, the related Federal Election Commission filing lists the faux “Furman” with the same occupation as a real Los Angeles-based doctor named Igor Furman. A spokesperson for Dr. Furman’s company told The Daily Beast that he never made a donation to the House Majority Trust.
Fruman was also misrepresented in the NRCC document for the April 20 event obtained by HuffPost. He was listed as “Igor Furman,” and his bio and picture were those of Dr. Furman. The NRCC did not return a request for comment on whether that was their mistake or whether Fruman sent inaccurate information.
Despite all the financial help from Trump’s super PAC and his two decades representing north Dallas, Sessions lost to Democrat Colin Allred in November 2018. Sessions is currently toying with the idea of running for another Texas congressional seat ― this one stretching from Waco to the suburbs of Austin ― that is being vacated by Republican Bill Flores. Or, he has said, he may seek a rematch with Allred for his old seat.
But these days, instead of his Texas twang ringing out in the Rules Committee, the name “Pete Sessions” is heard most often behind closed doors in the House Intelligence Committee, as that panel investigates the Ukraine controversy as part of its impeachment inquiry. When Yovanovitch’s testimony was released earlier this week, Sessions’ name was all over the transcript.
Still, it wouldn’t be impossible for Sessions to win his way back to Congress with the Ukrainian cloud hanging over him. In a sense, Sessions’ path hews closely to the overall trajectory of the GOP: a Bush-loving, war-fighting party that now values fealty to Trump above all else.
And if Sessions digs in, if he insists there was nothing wrong with meeting with Parnas and Fruman or writing a letter to the secretary of state urging that a U.S. ambassador be fired, he may actually endear himself to Trump and his Republican allies.
It would be the final transformation for a congressman whom a future Trump enthusiast ― 2016 presidential campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson ― once tried to knock off in a primary challenge.