A close associate of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer says he delivered an ultimatum in May to the incoming president of Ukraine that no senior US officials would attend his inauguration and all American aid to the war-torn country would be withheld if an investigation into Joe Biden wasn't announced.
Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, made several potentially explosive claims in a televised interview on Wednesday night with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. The day after Parnas said he delivered the message, the US State Department announced that Vice President Mike Pence would no longer be attending the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy.
Parnas alleged that Trump ordered Pence to stay away at the behest of Giuliani to send a clear message to the incoming Ukrainian administration that they needed to take seriously the demand for an investigation into Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate seen as a potential threat to Trump's 2020 reelection.
Parnas said every communication he had with Zelenskiy's team was at the direction of Giuliani, whom he regularly overheard briefing Trump about their progress by phone.
"President Trump knew exactly what was going on," said Parnas, a Soviet-born Florida businessman facing a raft of criminal charges related to campaign finance violations. "He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani, or the President."
If true, Parnas' account undercuts a key Republican defence of Trump deployed during the ongoing impeachment fight - that Trump's withholding of vital military aid to Ukraine last summer wasn't a quid pro quo for Biden investigations because Zelenskiy didn't know the money was being held up.
Giuliani called Parnas' statements "sad."
"I feel sorry for him," Giuliani said Wednesday in a text message.
"I thought he was an honourable man. I was wrong."
Asked directly if Parnas was lying, Trump's lawyer replied, "I'm not responding yet."
Parnas said he also heard Giuliani and another Trump-aligned defence lawyer, Victoria Toensing, briefing Attorney General William Barr by phone about their efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce the investigation into Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Parnas' claims were "100 per cent false."
The new accusations came as House Democrats made public a trove of documents, text messages and photos from Parnas' smartphones that appear to verify parts of his account.
A House committee chairman said Wednesday his panel will investigate what he says are "profoundly alarming" text messages among the newly disclosed materials that have raised questions about the possible surveillance of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before she was ousted by the Trump administration last spring.
The messages show that a Trump donor named Robert F. Hyde disparaged Yovanovitch in messages to Parnas and gave him updates on her location and mobile phone use.
Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that the messages "suggest a possible risk" to Yovanovitch's security in Kiev before she was recalled from her post.
"These threats occurred at the same time that the two men were also discussing President Trump's efforts, through Rudy Giuliani, to smear the ambassador's reputation," Engel said.
"This unprecedented threat to our diplomats must be thoroughly investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Engel said.
Democrats released the files on Tuesday and Wednesday as they prepared to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for Trump's trial.