As they ate, the conversation veered into Ukraine.
Over a dinner of the “Presidential Cheeseburger” and wedge salad, Mr. Parnas relayed a rumor that Marie L. Yovanovitch, then the American ambassador to Ukraine, was bad-mouthing the president — an unsubstantiated claim that Ms. Yovanovitch has denied, according to two people with knowledge of the dinner.
The exchange foreshadowed the role that Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman would come to play in Mr. Trump’s Ukrainian campaign.
Less than two weeks later, Mr. Parnas met with another critic of Ms. Yovanovitch, Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, in his Washington congressional office. Mr. Parnas, who had recently met Mr. Sessions at a fund-raiser, showed him a map of a crucial pipeline related to their gas venture, a photo shows.
By the end of the meeting, though, the topic had shifted to Ms. Yovanovitch, and Mr. Parnas reiterated what he had heard, a person briefed on the meeting said. After the meeting, Mr. Sessions sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that Ms. Yovanovitch had spoken disdainfully of the Trump administration, and suggesting her removal. Mr. Sessions, who lost his re-election bid last year, has previously said he wrote the letter independently of Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, after speaking to congressional colleagues.
Federal prosecutors contend in the indictment against Mr. Parnas that he was not just making small talk but sought to oust Ms. Yovanovitch “at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials,” which could be a violation of federal laws that require Americans to register with the Justice Department when lobbying for foreign political interests. The indictment did not name any Ukrainian officials.
The men have not been charged with anything related to Ms. Yovanovitch, but prosecutors have said that additional charges are likely, at least for Mr. Parnas.
When the State Department declined to act on Ms. Yovanovitch, Mr. Sessions provided Mr. Parnas with a copy of his letter, a person familiar with the exchange said. The congressman’s name was signed across the back of the envelope, and “Mr. President” appeared across the front, photos show. Mr. Sessions “has no memory of” the exchange, a person close to the former congressman said.