- President Donald Trump is on the back foot thanks to an intervention by Lev Parnas, a onetime supporter involved in the Ukraine shadow diplomacy that prompted Trump’s impeachment.
- Ahead of Trump’s trial in the Senate, Parnas emerged with a slew of allegations that make the president’s position even more difficult to defend.
- In a tell-all interview, Parnas described a cult-like devotion to Trump that inverted after he was discarded.
- The dynamic echoes that of Michael Cohen, another zealous Trump ally who turned on him.
- Relying on, then discarding, hyper-loyal followers has smoothed Trump’s path in the short term but proved damaging further down the line.
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As President Donald Trump heads closer to becoming only the third president in US history to weather an impeachment trial in the Senate, a familiar pattern is emerging in the associations that got him in this position.
At the same time, expectations that he could speed through the process with a fast, clean acquittal are beginning to evaporate.
A striking interview with a figure from the Ukraine pressure campaign underpinning the case of impeachment helps illustrate how Trump finds himself in this bind.
Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, gave a long interview to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow this week in which he described at great length the mechanics and experience of enacting shadow foreign policy on behalf of the White House.
Pursued by federal prosecutors on unrelated charges of campaign-finance violations, Parnas broke his silence for reasons he is yet to fully explain.
Speaking out now, he told Maddow he felt like somebody who had just emerged, blinking, from a cult.
—Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) January 17, 2020
He described a sense of unthinking idolatry when doing Trump’s bidding and belief that the president would help protect him. He told The New York Times that he “thought by listening to the president and his attorney that I couldn’t possibly get in trouble or do anything wrong.”
Parnas even had a shrine to Trump in his house.
This cult-like devotion in those who surround Trump is not unique to Parnas. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and attorney, also described a fanatical dedication to the president.
A friend of Cohen’s, cited last February by The Times, said Cohen “would describe it as being something akin to a cult” and “got sucked into it.”
The person went on: “And his life is in shambles because of it.”
It led Cohen to unquestioningly make an illegal payment of hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, for fear of her going public about her relationship with Trump (which Trump denies) in the fractious 2016 election campaign.
James Comey, the former FBI chief, has spoken of what he considered an attempt by Trump in the early days of his presidency to draw him into this dynamic, compromising the traditional firewall between the FBI and the White House.
Comey said the closest comparison he could imagine was the New York mobsters he prosecuted earlier in his career.
It is undeniable that this devotion is useful in the short term — especially when creating loyal group of Republican lawmakers to defend him, fearful of retribution.
Trump is notoriously unimpressed by people who call on other loyalties as they question or frustrate his agenda. And he prizes a close group of loyal foot soldiers, often his children, who streamline the process of getting things done.
Until they don’t.
Cohen, like Parnas, turned on Trump in public interviews at a moment of maximum damage.
In a congressional hearing timed to steal the limelight from Trump’s ultimately frustrated efforts to build bridges with North Korea, Cohen called Trump a liar and a racist, who he claimed asked him, in turn, to lie and threaten on his behalf.
Now the pattern has repeated with the allegations brought forth by Parnas, who sought to confirm that the shady Ukraine agenda apparently pursued by Trump was more extensive than previously known, both in scope and by the sheer number of Trump officials Parnas claims were involved.
The stakes are far from academic. As the Senate trial looms, Republican leadership will try its utmost to enforce discipline and use its three-seat majority to acquit Trump as swiftly as possible. This would limit the damage of impeachment and open the way — as with the Russia investigation — for the president to claim “total exoneration.”
But this unity is shaky. Three Republicans in toss-up seats seem willing to side with Democrats to defy Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and call witnesses to testify in the trial. A fourth would make it a reality.
Witness testimony could mean more revelations from the likes of John Bolton, the former national security adviser who is widely believed to have information that could damage Trump.
The president, while complaining bitterly of his impeachment, has also tried to wear it as a badge of honor, fundraising hard on the spectacle of what he still characterizes as a partisan witch hunt.
Despite Trump’s famed resilience to scandal, this strategy becomes less and less tenable if credible and damaging information is brought into the public domain and chips away at his support within the GOP.
Trump’s base, which he sorely needs to carry him into a second term come November, is famously loyal. But, as Parnas and Cohen have ably proved, loyalty has its limits.