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Video appears to show Trump ordering associates to 'get rid of' US ambassador to Ukraine

For more than an hour one evening in 2018, President Donald Trump sat around a dinner table in a private suite in his Washington hotel with a group of donors, including two men at the centre of the impeachment inquiry, talking about golf, trade, politics — and removing the US ambassador to Ukraine.

The conversation, captured on a recording made public Saturday, contradicted Mr Trump’s repeated statements that he does not know the two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who went on to work with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to carry out a pressure campaign on Ukraine.

The recording — a video shot on Mr Fruman’s phone during the dinner in April 2018 — largely confirmed Mr Parnas’ account of having raised with Mr Trump criticisms of the ambassador to Kyiv at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, and the president’s immediate order that Ms Yovanovitch be removed from the post.

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“Get rid of her,” Mr Trump can be heard responding.

The recording was made public by Mr Parnas’ lawyer, Joseph Bondy, hours after the president’s lawyers began presenting their defence in the impeachment trial and as Democrats looked for leverage to persuade Republicans to support their calls to expand the inquiry by introducing additional evidence and by calling new witnesses.

Mr Bondy said it was being released in “an effort to provide clarity to the American people and the Senate as to the need to conduct a fair trial, with witnesses and evidence.”

In the recording, Mr Parnas, who is the more talkative of the two, broached an energy deal the two were pursuing in Ukraine and then went on to discuss several themes that later became central to the pressure campaign. He claimed that ambassador Yovanovitch, whose name he did not cite, had been disparaging Mr Trump. He said that the Ukrainians “were supporting the Clintons all these years.” He even mentioned in passing the family of the former Vice President Joe Biden.

The recording does not appear to introduce substantive new information about the effort to oust Ms Yovanovitch. But it does seem to shed light on the origins of Mr Trump’s interest in the issue and to foreshadow his administration’s withholding of military assistance from the country as part of the pressure campaign. It hints at the motivations of Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman, who had come to believe that Ms Yovanovitch was opposed to their business plans in Ukraine, where they had tried to break into the natural gas market, according to associates of the two men, both of whom are Soviet-born US citizens.

And it provides a glimpse of something rarely seen: top-tier political donors getting a chance in an intimate setting to share their views with the president and press their agendas with him.

During the dinner, Mr Trump lashed out at the European Union for trying to “screw” the United States, assailed the World Trade Organisation as a “weapon” intended to harm America and lamented the “globalists” around him who did not care if manufacturing plants shuttered.

Democrats are seeking Trump’s removal from office on the grounds that he abused his power by pressing Ukraine to investigate targets of the president, including Mr Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman worked closely with Giuliani in seeking information and making contacts in Ukraine in support of the effort, starting months after the April 2018 dinner.

For most of the recording, the camera is pointed at the ceiling but the audio is clear. Early in the recording, Trump can be seen as he enters the private room at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on April 30, 2018.

The existence of the recording and some of the conversation were first reported by ABC News on Friday.

The effort to oust Ms Yovanovitch would later become directly linked to the broader pressure campaign on Ukraine waged by Mr Giuliani, Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman. Evidence provided to House investigators showed that Mr Parnas was in regular contact last year with Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, who also wanted Ms Yovanovitch replaced, and seemed willing to trade investigations of Mr Biden for her removal and other signs of support from the Trump administration.

By the time of the dinner with Mr Trump, Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman already saw Ms Yovanovitch as an impediment to their efforts to get into the energy business in Ukraine.

In the full recording released Saturday, Mr Parnas can be heard telling Mr Trump that he and Mr Fruman “are in the process of purchasing an energy company in Ukraine right now.”

Mr Trump responds, “How’s Ukraine doing?” then quickly adds, “Don’t answer,” prompting laughter in the room.

After some conversation about Ukraine’s war with its hostile neighbour, Russia, and its efforts to establish energy security, Mr Trump asked, “How long would they last in a fight with Russia?”

“I don’t think very long,” Mr Parnas responded. “Without us, not very long,” adding “they feel they’re going to be OK if you support them.”

Mr Parnas continued by saying that “the biggest problem is corruption there,” and later added Ms Yovanovitch, although not by name, to a list of issues Trump should address in Ukraine.

“The biggest problem there, I think, where we, where you, need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador,” he said. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody, ‘Wait, he’s going to get impeached, just wait.’”

The remark prompted laughter in the room.

Trump asked for the ambassador’s name. Mr Fruman said, “I don’t remember.” Trump, sounding stern, then said: “Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”

Mr Yovanovitch remained in her job for another year after Trump’s remarks until she was recalled on the White House’s orders. It is not clear whether the president changed his mind, forgot about his order or was talked out of dismissing her. Mr Parnas has recently acknowledged that he was wrong about Ms Yovanovitch, who has denied ever disparaging Trump.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trump has previously acknowledged that he had problems with Yovanovitch but has defended his actions as appropriate, given that presidents have the right to name and replace ambassadors as they see fit.

Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman gained access to the dinner, which was organised by a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, by pledging to donate $1 million (£769k) to the group.

Lev Parnas with Donald Trump in Florida (House Judiciary Committee/AP)

The month after the event, they donated $325,000 (£249,000) to the group through a company they had recently formed to pursue energy deals called Global Energy Producers.

At the beginning of the video, the person holding the phone walks around the private suite filming chatter among the guests, who included Donald Trump Jr; Jack Nicklaus III, the grandson and namesake of the legendary golfer; and Barry Zekelman, a Canadian billionaire whose steel business is mostly in the United States.

Later, Mr Trump said to attendees, “This is all sort of, like, off the record, right?”

During the dinner, attendees fawned over Mr Trump and seemed to revel in their ability to ask him for direct help with business issues.

In the meandering conversation, Mr Trump defended the aggressive actions he was taking against China and explained that he overruled advisers who urged him to take a softer approach because the United States was already so deeply on the losing end of the relationship.

“They’re tough, but I always say when you’re $500 billion down you can’t lose the trade war,” Mr Trump said, referring to the bilateral trade deficit the United States runs with China.

Mr Trump, who has since reached a trade truce with China, foreshadowed his next big trade fight, taking aim at the EU.

“The European Union is a group of countries that got together to screw the United States. It’s as simple as that,” Mr Trump said, adding that such a notion is surprising because “we’re all sort of from there, right?”

The conversation came just one month after Trump had slapped tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium, including metals imported from Europe.

Facebook screengrab shows Mr Parnas with son of President Trump, Donald Trump Jr (The Campaign Legal Center via AP, File)

At the dinner, Mr Trump repeatedly praised the tariffs, although he occasionally expressed concern that they could reduce the amount of available metals. “I don’t want to be at a point where we don’t have enough steel in this country,” he said. A few minutes later, he added, “You’re going to see prices go up. Hopefully not too much.”

It has been a decade since legal changes paved the way for unlimited donations to super PACs, making such gatherings an even more explicit demonstration of how a large political payment can turn into access to push a special interest.

The donors competed for time to walk through their sometimes conflicting issues, one by one, pitching the president to take up their causes almost as if they were on “Shark Tank,” the reality television show, looking for investors in their ideas.

Mr Zekelman, a Canadian citizen who owns a steel-tube manufacturing company that donated $1.75 million (£1.39m) to the political action committee supporting Mr Trump, pushed the president on what he saw as the top two challenges facing his company: cheap steel tube imports from Asia and new federal rules that made it harder to find truck drivers.

He first urged Mr Trump to go even further in his effort to limit steel imports to the United States, and he then questioned the rules intended to prevent fatal truck accidents by using electronic monitoring systems to limit how many hours drivers can be on the road.

Since that dinner, legislation has been introduced in the House with the co-sponsorship of 12 Republicans, including the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, to allow smaller trucking companies to get exemptions from the rule.

Mr Zekelman is not allowed under federal law to make a contribution to the political action committee. So his company donated the money through one of its subsidiaries based in the United States, a manoeuvre that has generated a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that he might have violated federal election law, after The New York Times wrote about the donations last year.

One attendee told Trump that he operates a company that supplies trucks powered by compressed natural gas and urged Mr Trump to take steps to make the business more competitive with electric-powered trucks or cars.

Another, who said he runs a company that does business with the US Postal Service, pushed Trump to consider backing the construction of a 500-mile section of highway in the United States that would be used exclusively by self-driving trucks. Paying truck drivers, he said, is one of his company’s biggest costs.

“All the technology is there, right now,” he said. “It is absolutely safe.”

Mr  Parnas did not limit his efforts to influence Mr  Trump to Ukraine. He can be heard trying to engage Mr  Trump about issues related to another business venture he would go on to pursue — a plan to win marijuana retail licenses in Nevada and elsewhere.

He appeared to ask Mr  Trump to consider changing regulations that banks have said make it difficult for them to process transactions related to the cannabis business.

“Have you thought about allowing banking in some of these states that allow cannabis?” Mr Parnas asked.

“What?" Mr Trump responded, “You can’t do banking there?”

Mr Parnas said banking regulations were “the biggest problem” for the industry and argued that the issue could help Mr Trump politically. If the president created a bipartisan committee to study it, Mr  Parnas argued, “you can know what’s going on and make the right decision. By just putting the committee together, it will give you such a boost in the midterm with a lot of the millennials.”

Mr Trump expressed some scepticism, saying marijuana use has led to “more accidents” and asserting “it does cause an IQ problem.”

But Donald Trump Jr. seemed more agreeable, arguing “between that and alcohol, as far as I’m concerned alcohol does much more damage,” and asserting “you don’t see people beating their wives on marijuana. It’s just different.”

A spokesman for the younger Mr Trump did not respond to a request for comment.​

The New York Times

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