NEW YORK - Just hours before Donald Trump's impeachment trial opened Thursday, an associate of his personal attorney said the US president was fully aware of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
In several stunning interviews, Ukrainian-born businessman Lev Parnas broke ranks from his close friend Rudy Giuliani to directly implicate Trump and a host of other Republican figures.
Parnas's break from the White House marked a dramatic about-turn for a key player in the alleged campaign to dig dirt on Biden, a potential candidate to take on Trump in November's election.
Parnas, charged in October with violating campaign finance laws, said Trump "knew exactly what was going on," regarding his and business partner Igor Fruman's efforts to influence the Ukrainian authorities.
"He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president," Parnas, an American citizen, told MSNBC Wednesday, his lawyer sitting by his side.
The 47-year-old told CNN separately that the efforts were "all about" ensuring Trump won a second term as America's leader, and not about fighting corruption as the president has claimed.
It was the first time he had publicly implicated the president. Parnas had previously been loyal to Giuliani who is reportedly the godfather to one of Parnas's children.
Shortly after the historic impeachment trial of Trump began in the Senate with a solemn reading of the two charges against him, the 45th president hit back at Parnas.
"I don't know him, I don't believe I've ever spoken to him," Trump told reporters.
"I don't need the help of a man I haven't met before, other than perhaps taken a picture," he added.
Parnas's interview came after Democrats released documents this week that showed Giuliani worked with Parnas to pressure Kiev to investigate Biden.
They also showed the two, working with Ukrainian officials, trying to force out the US ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, eventually removed by Trump.
Parnas told MSNBC that Trump had lied by denying he knew him.
"I mean, we're not friends," Parnas said of Trump.
"But he knew exactly who we were. He knew exactly who I was especially because I interacted with him at a lot of events."
Parnas said he was often with Giuliani four or five times a week and regularly overheard him talking on the phone with Trump.
He added in the interviews, which included one with the New York Times, that a circle of Republican officials knew about the effort to apply pressure to Ukraine.
Parnas implicated Attorney General William Barr and Californian lawmaker Devin Nunes, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, as well as two others linked to the funding of Trump's re-election campaign.
On Tuesday, Democrats released newly acquired files, including photos and text messages, that appear to provide evidence of a campaign to pressure Ukrainian officials.
They also detailed the controversial removal of Yovanovitch, who served as the US ambassador to Ukraine for nearly three years before she was abruptly called back to the United States in May.
Messages exchanged between Parnas and Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde suggest Hyde was communicating with people in Ukraine who were closely watching Yovanovitch's movements.
Parnas said he doubted the surveillance took place but Ukraine said Thursday it had launched a probe into the alleged activities.
The details that Parnas gave, if true, give weight to Trump critics who accuse the president of importing mafia-like methods into the White House.
Former mafia prosecutor Mimi Rocah tweeted that it sounded like "a mob hit."
Parnas has pleaded not guilty to federal charges which put him at risk of 20 years in prison and his lawyer has said he is ready to cooperate with investigators.
He told the New York Times that his "biggest regret" was trusting Giuliani and Trump too much.
"I thought I was being a patriot and helping the president," he said.
Parnas and Fruman are accused of concealing the foreign origin of donations made in 2018, including one to Trump's re-election campaign.
Parnas was arrested on October 9 when he was preparing to fly out of the United States on a one-way ticket.
He was already in the crosshairs of congressional Democrats who wanted to interview him in relation to their investigation into Trump's controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which sparked the impeachment.
© Agence France-Presse