Ukrainian authorities opened a criminal probe into whether the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was put under surveillance by American citizens, as text messages made public this week suggest, before she was removed from her post last year.
The messages about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch were among materials involving an associate of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s lawyer, released by House Democrats as part of the impeachment probe into the president. Those messages and prime-time television interviews by the associate, Lev Parnas, reverberated in Washington on Thursday as the Senate opened the impeachment trial.
Democrats began weighing whether to call Mr. Parnas as a witness either in the Senate trial or in another proceeding, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) describing him as a credible witness.
Republicans, meanwhile, worked to challenge that notion, noting Mr. Parnas’s arrest in October on charges of campaign-finance violations, to which he pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Parnas assisted Mr. Giuliani as he sought to pressure Ukraine to undertake investigations that would politically benefit Mr. Trump—an effort that helped set off the impeachment inquiry. Mr. Trump has called the inquiry a politically motivated hoax.
In an interview Wednesday with MSNBC, Mr. Parnas tied Mr. Trump to his efforts to get Ukrainian officials to open probes into alleged election interference and into Democrat Joe Biden and his son.
Ukrainian authorities said Thursday they were investigating possible surveillance of Ms. Yovanovitch. Text messages released by Democrats showed Robert F. Hyde, a Trump backer and Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut, telling Mr. Parnas he was monitoring the ambassador’s movements.
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Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said it would “investigate whether there were any violations of Ukrainian and international laws…or [if it was] just bravado and fake talk in an informal conversation between two U.S. citizens.”
“Ukraine cannot ignore such illegal activities on its territory,” the ministry said.
The ministry appealed for the U.S. to cooperate with the probe. The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment and the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment.
FBI personnel visited Mr. Hyde’s Connecticut home and business on Thursday, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The texts Mr. Hyde sent to Mr. Parnas in the spring of 2019 included such messages as: “they will let me know when she’s on the move,” “They are willing to help if we/you would like to pay a price” and “Guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money.”
Mr. Hyde later texted, “if you want her out they need to make contact with security forces.”
Mr. Hyde has said he was never in Kyiv and denied he was monitoring the ambassador. In an interview Wednesday with Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. television host Eric Bolling, Mr. Hyde was asked if he ever “had eyes on Marie Yovanovitch.”
“Absolutely not, are you kidding me?” he responded. “I’m a little landscaper from f—ing Connecticut. Come on.” He added: “I thought we were playing.”
The text messages and interviews by Mr. Parnas, coming just as the House turned over the articles of impeachment to the Senate, brought renewed attention to the Soviet-born businessman and his ties to Trump supporters.
Mr. Trump on Thursday reiterated that he didn’t know Mr. Parnas “at all” and said they had taken photos together at fundraisers. “Perhaps he’s a fine man, perhaps he’s not,” the president said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to him.”
Joseph Bondy, a lawyer for Mr. Parnas, responded by tweeting a video of Mr. Parnas standing with the president at an event at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in 2017.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), who led the impeachment inquiry and is a manager—or prosecutor—in the Senate trial, said Mr. Parnas was being evaluated as a potential witness. His TV interviews and other documents “shed additional insights” into the pressure exerted on Ukraine and the involvement of members of the Trump administration, Mr. Schiff said.
Republicans questioned Mr. Parnas’s significance and integrity. “If I had ever heard of him before yesterday, I’m not aware of it. This is the indicted guy, right?” Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said.
Aside from the campaign finance charges, Mr. Parnas has also been accused of lying about his income and assets and his business dealings are being investigated.
Also included in the new materials Democrats released this week was a letter Mr. Giuliani wrote last spring to Ukraine’s then-President-elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking a meeting. In the letter he said he was writing “in my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.” The meeting didn’t take place.
Mr. Trump said Thursday that he didn’t know about Mr. Giuliani’s correspondence, “but if he wrote a letter it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”
Beyond their relevance to the impeachment, the messages to Mr. Parnas about Ms. Yovanovitch also renewed concerns among some Democrats about her treatment by the State Department.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter on Wednesday to the State Department seeking information on whether officials there knew of the alleged surveillance of Ms. Yovanovitch and what efforts were taken to ensure her safety and that of other U.S. diplomats.
Mr. Trump ordered Ms. Yovanovitch removed from her post in late April, exercising a presidential prerogative to remove ambassadors at will. Ms. Yovanovitch told House investigators that she was alarmed the State Department didn’t support her in the face of a smear campaign by Mr. Giuliani and others seeking to get her removed. Mr. Giuliani has said he told Mr. Trump that Ms. Yovanovitch displayed an anti-Trump bias, which she has denied.
Earlier this week, Ms. Yovanovitch’s lawyer called for an investigation into whether her movements were being tracked, calling the text messages “disturbing.”
Ukrainian authorities said they were also probing a cybersecurity firm’s report that Russia’s military hacked into Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company that became a focus of Mr. Trump’s impeachment because former Vice President Joe Biden’s son served on its board.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday. The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment on the allegations on Monday, when media reports about the hack were first published.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry asked Area 1, a cybersecurity company, for help investigating a suspected cyberattack on Burisma. An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the company as Area 51. (Jan. 16, 2019)
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