The recording, which The Washington Post has not independently verified, appears to corroborate an account of the evening by Lev Parnas, a former associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. In a recent interview, Parnas said he told Trump that evening that Yovanovitch was working against him.
“I do remember me telling the president the ambassador was bad-mouthing him and saying he was going to get impeached, something to that effect,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week.
In the interview, he apologized to Yovanovitch, saying he now believes he was wrong about her.
The Post first reported that Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman bad-mouthed Yovanovitch to Trump at the dinner and that the president reacted strongly, saying she should be fired. The recording of the conversation was made by Fruman, ABC reported.
But the 2018 conversation about Yovanovitch also raises questions about the impetus behind the effort to push her out, indicating that it began before the Ukraine pressure campaign.
The dinner took place before Parnas and Fruman began working with Giuliani and seven months before Giuliani has said he began his Ukraine investigation — suggesting that the duo were agitating against the ambassador for another reason and may have biased Trump against her early on.
Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Fruman, declined to comment.
Parnas’s attorney, Joseph A. Bondy, said that the recording was not leaked by him or his client, but that it validates Parnas’s recollection of that event with Trump.
“For some time, Mr. Parnas has indicated that he had previously heard such a recording. We do not possess the recording, and all of Mr. Parnas’s statements regarding that event were based on his independent recollection of that event rather than the contents of the tape,” he said early Friday.
By Friday evening, Bondy said Parnas had located the recording in his iCloud accounts during the day. Bondy said the recording was then provided to the House Intelligence Committee.
In an interview with Fox News later Friday, Trump did not deny it was him on the tape. Instead, when asked about it, he defended his decision to fire Yovanovitch and skirted whether he was relying on Parnas to do it.
“Well, I wouldn’t have been saying that. I probably would have said — it was Rudy there, or somebody — but I make no bones about it, I want to have ambassadors — I have every right, I want ambassadors that are chosen by me. I have a right to hire and fire ambassadors, and that’s a very important thing,” Trump said.
Giuliani was not at the April 2018 dinner.
Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow, asked about the tape, told reporters in the Capitol that he’s “not concerned about that at all.”
Vice President Pence was also asked about the tape Friday during an impromptu news conference with reporters in Italy.
“I have not heard the tape and would not be prepared to comment on it. All of the ambassadors for the United States of America serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States,” Pence said, according to a pool report.
The audio, he added, “will only confirm what people already know: is that the president had concerns, and in his authority this president made a decision.”
The recording provides further evidence of the long-running effort to push out Yovanovitch, whose ouster was sought by Yuri Lutsenko, formerly Ukraine’s top prosecutor.
Text messages from last year, released by the House this month, indicated that Lutsenko agreed to provide Parnas with damaging information related to former vice president Joe Biden if the Trump administration recalled the ambassador.
The messages, written in Russian, show Lutsenko urging Parnas to force out Yovanovitch in exchange for cooperation regarding Biden. At one point, Lutsenko suggests he won’t make any helpful public statements unless “madam” is removed.
“It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam — you are calling into question all my declarations. Including about B,” Lutsenko wrote to Parnas in a March 22 message on WhatsApp.
It’s unclear if “B” is a reference to Biden or to Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, served from 2014 to 2019.
Four days later, Lutsenko told Parnas that work on the case against the owner of the gas company was proceeding successfully and evidence of the money transfers of “B” had been obtained.
“And here you can’t even remove one fool,” Lutsenko lamented, using a sad-face emoticon as he again appeared to push for Yovanovitch’s ouster.
“She’s not a simple fool[,] trust me,” Parnas responded. “But she’s not getting away.”
Parnas, days later, told Lutsenko that “soon everything will turn around and we’ll be on the right course.” Lutsenko responded that he had copies of payments Burisma made to an investment firm co-founded by Hunter Biden.
The following month, Yovanovitch was removed from her post at Giuliani’s urging. Lutsenko later said publicly that he found no evidence of wrongdoing under Ukrainian law by Hunter or Joe Biden.
Paul Sonne contributed to this report.