So it turns out that GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, while inexplicably remaining one of Donald Trump's greatest public supporters, and the fact he's chair of the Senate Judiciary committee cannot be overlooked, is still very, very bad at this whole espionage and skullduggery thing.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has in the last year become something of a congressional point man for President Donald Trump’s negotiations with Turkey, leading discussions on everything from Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile system over the summer to their more recent incursion into northern Syria.
So when he received a call from a man he thought was Turkey’s minister of defense earlier in August, it didn’t strike him as unusual. “Thank you so much for calling me, Mr. Minister,” Graham said. “I want to make this a win-win, if we can.”
But it wasn’t the Turkish defense minister at all. Instead, it was Alexey Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov, Russian pranksters with suspected ties to the country’s intelligence services who go by “Lexus and Vovan.” The duo have become notorious in recent years for their cold calls to unwitting, high-profile Western politicians, including Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, leading some to suspect that they’ve had help from the Kremlin, according to The Guardian. (A Schiff spokesman said at the time that the House Intelligence Committee “informed appropriate law enforcement and security personnel of the conversation.”)
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, confirmed the call’s authenticity to POLITICO. “We have been successful in stopping many efforts to prank Senator Graham and the office, but this one slipped through the cracks,” he said. “They got him.”
The substance of Graham’s conversation with Stolyarov, who was posing as Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, is newly relevant in light of the South Carolina senator’s push for sanctions on Turkey as punishment for their offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. Graham labeled the Kurds a “threat” to Turkey in the call, seemingly contradicting what he has said publicly in recent days.
Graham also mentions Trump’s personal interest in a “Turkish bank case” in the call that appears to refer to a U.S. case involving Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader and client of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that Trump had asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017 to help persuade the Justice Department to drop the Zarrab case.
The pranksters’ conversation with Graham, a Trump ally who has the president’s ear on national security issues, also raises obvious questions about potential security breaches. While the pranks appear on their face to have been relatively harmless, the incident suggests it’s getting easier for bad actors to elicit sensitive information from policymakers. Stolyarov provided POLITICO with a recording of their call.
No doubt that Graham's about-face on Syrian Kurds and possible break from Trump is exactly why this call was released. Expect Graham's efforts to introduce bipartisan Senate sanctions against Turkey to immediately go down the toilet. Graham just got a very ugly reminder as to whom he really works for, and it's not the people of the Palmetto State.
Of course, Trump just got an equally ugly reminder as to whom he works for, as well.
So here's a recap of today from CNN's Jim Sciutto:
Fruman/Parnas indictments are about as direct foreign interference as you could dream up: funneling foreign money to a US candidate to help remove an ambassador who refused to do the president’s bidding attacking a political rival. Btw, they worked with Trump’s personal lawyer.— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) October 10, 2019
And there are only two things keeping Trump from prison right now: AG Bill Barr, and GOP Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Without those two people, Trump would have been trashed months ago.