Lindsey Graham has spent the last 72 hours furiously maligning Donald Trump’s decision to effectively green light Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-threatened, Kurd-hunting expedition in Syria, going so far as to call the move “the biggest mistake of [Trump’s] presidency”. (And that’s saying a lot.)
Graham is also working to marshal support on Capitol Hill for sanctions against Ankara in retaliation for the border offensive which, as of Thursday, had cost more than 100 lives, according to Erdogan, who is essentially conducting a massacre in the name of an “anti-terror” campaign.
As it turns out, though, Graham was singing a different tune during an August phone call with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. “Your YPG Kurdish problem is a big problem”, the senator said, adding that the Kurds are a “threat”.
Here’s the thing, though. Graham wasn’t actually talking to Hulusi Akar. Rather, he was talking to Russian prank callers.
“It was Alexey Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov, Russian pranksters with suspected ties to the country’s intelligence services who go by ‘Lexus and Vovan'”, Natasha Bertrand writes, for Politico, adding that “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”.
Here, for those interested, is what Lindsey says behind closed doors about the Kurds he purports to care so deeply about:
I told President Trump that Obama made a huge mistake in relying on the YPG Kurds. Everything I worried about has come true, and now we have to make sure Turkey is protected from this threat in Syria. I’m sympathetic to the YPG problem, and so is the president, quite frankly.
It is impossible to overstate how sharply that contrasts with Graham’s recent rhetoric. Since Sunday, Lindsey has told anybody willing to listen about the extent to which it was unequivocally wrong for the White House to abandon the YPG and leave them at Erdogan’s mercy.
Believe it or not, the Russian pranksters somehow got Graham on the phone again a couple of days later, and you’ll never guess what came up – why, the Reza Zarrab case, naturally!
“And this case involving the Turkish bank, [Trump is] very sensitive to that”, Graham said, adding that “the president wants to be helpful, within the limits of his power”.
Yes, “within the limits of his power”. It’s funny Lindsey should have said that, because as it turns out, Trump tried to push those ostensible “limits” in the second half of 2017 when, according to sources who spoke to Bloomberg for a bombshell article out Wednesday evening, the US president tried to convince Rex Tillerson to intervene with the Justice department in an effort to have the Zarrab case dropped.
At the time, Zarrab was represented by Rudy Giuliani, whose shadow diplomacy with Turkey in many ways mirrored what he’s been doing in Ukraine for the past nine or so months.
Tillerson flatly told Trump he wanted no part of the idea. He later told John Kelly that what Trump had asked was illegal.
Erdogan for years sought to have the Zarrab case “resolved”, and pressed Joe Biden (and his wife) on the issue repeatedly. He also tried to convince the former vice president to fire Preet Bharara, who the Turkish autocrat accused of being “a Gulenist tool” (a reference to Pennsylvania cleric Fethullah Gulen, the only person on the planet who Erdogan hates worse than the PKK).
Bertrand – who has bounced around from Business Insider to The Atlantic to now Politico, and is a semi-frequent contributor to NBC and MSNBC – is charitable in her retelling of the prank call to Graham. “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”, she writes, calling the substance of the call “newly relevant” in light of both Erdogan’s Syria incursion and news that Trump tried to influence the Zarrab case.
We would go a bit further than that. Graham is a seasoned politician, so it comes as no surprise that nothing wholly incriminating came out of the prank calls. But the fact that he would even entertain the notion that Trump might interfere with a criminal case (within the bounds of his authority or otherwise) on behalf of Ankara is disconcerting, as is the fact that Graham is clearly predisposed to sharing Erdogan’s characterization of the YPG as a “big problem” when nobody is listening.
Kevin Bishop, spokesman for Graham, was forthcoming with Bertrand. “They got him”, he said, admitting that the senator was duped by the prank callers.
As far as the substance of the call, Bishop suggested that recent events have changed the game and that Graham might strike a different tone if he had the conversation today. “With Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria the drive for better relations between our two countries has suffered a body blow”, Bishop said.
Maybe “Lexus and Vovan” should call Lindsey back and get some new quotes.