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Lev Parnas' Strategy Mirrors That Of Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen


Usually, a person who is facing federal charges keeps a low profile. That is not true of Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani. He's been giving lots of interviews on cable news lately. He's reminiscent of another person who used to be in President Trump's orbit and who was also under indictment. That's the president's former lawyer Michael Cohen. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has the story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Back in September, a few weeks before he was indicted in the Southern District of New York for alleged campaign finance crimes, Lev Parnas spoke with NPR.


LEV PARNAS: I know you're not going to believe me. But I'm going to tell you, and you can definitely quote me. President Trump doesn't need any help. President Trump is one of the greatest presidents we have.

LUCAS: That was then, and this is now. Here is Lev Parnas speaking last week to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about his time in Trump world.


PARNAS: It was like, you know, being in a cult. I mean, when they say organized crime, I don't think Trump is like orga (ph) - I think he's like a cult leader.

LUCAS: That was one of the tamer claims Parnas made in his cable news appearances. He alleged the president was fully aware of his and Rudy Giuliani's efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on former Vice President Joe Biden. He also claimed that Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr were both in on the alleged scheme - allegations they both deny.

Parnas says he's speaking out now because he wants to get the truth out about what he knows.

HARRY SANDICK: Why isn't he a government cooperator, if he knows all of this?

LUCAS: That's Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

SANDICK: My guess is that it might be somewhat similar to what happened with Michael Cohen. You can't become a cooperator unless the government believes you're telling the truth and you admit your underlying criminal conduct.

LUCAS: That Michael Cohen was Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer, a man who famously said he'd take a bullet for his boss.

Cohen was indicted in the Southern District of New York in April of 2018 for a range of financial crimes. Trump initially defended him before later trying to distance himself, despite their years of shared history. Cohen eventually broke with the president and gave the press a tape recording of him and Trump discussing payments to a former Playboy playmate who alleges she had an affair with Trump.


CHRIS CUOMO: It is a big night here. I'm Chris Cuomo. Welcome to "Prime Time". We have one of the Michael Cohen tapes, the secret recording of President Trump back in 2016, made by Cohen...

LUCAS: Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, touted that recording on CNN and later to other outlets, including ABC.


LANNY DAVIS: I will say that Michael Cohen has turned a corner in his life, and he's now dedicated to telling the truth to everyone.

LUCAS: Davis became a media regular pushing that message. Cohen had information the public should know, and he was willing to share it. Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty and, months later, testified before Congress. But he never cooperated fully with federal prosecutors. The former prosecutor Sandick says that raises questions.

SANDICK: When somebody has exciting information and they're eager to share it but they're not a cooperator, like Michael Cohen, you kind of assume that it's because they're not willing to play the Southern District's game.

LUCAS: Here's how that standard process works in the Southern District. A cooperating witness has to admit to what they've been charged with and provide information about all other criminal activity they know about. Cohen never did that. He did provide useful information to the special counsel's Russia investigation, but he did not fully cooperate with New York prosecutors.

Parnas has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and he says he wants to work with prosecutors. But he doesn't have a cooperation agreement yet. Sandick suggests Parnas may be playing a similar game to Cohen - trying to cooperate via a media campaign with an eye toward sentencing.

SANDICK: You're imagining what the sentencing will look like. And you want to tell the judge like, look; we were ready to talk. We went on TV. We gave all these - all this evidence. We did everything possible. And we understand the government has its rules, and we disagree with them. But Judge, you should give us some credit for this.

LUCAS: Prosecutors have said they expect to bring more charges in the case, which means Parnas may face more legal trouble ahead.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROWNOUT'S "MY UZI WEIGHS A TON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.