At the end of an elegant dinner in May 2019 in downtown Kyiv, Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach handed a thick packet of papers to a former senior U.S. official he’d known for years.
The packet was unremarkable in its presentation, the papers clipped on the top and crunched in the corners. The packet bore no insignia, title, or index page, and did little in the way of intriguing the former U.S. official. It wasn’t until months later that the official read through the pages. What was more remarkable was that U.S. intelligence had, for over a month, warned that Derkach was a stalking horse for the Russian security services and their attempts to interfere in American politics. It was the first in a series of reports, beginning in the spring of 2019, naming Derkach as part of a broader push to upend the U.S. election once again.
Despite the odd nature of the handoff, the dinner was one of the earliest known attempts by Derkach, current and former officials say, to pass materials to Americans in an attempt to push the debunked conspiracy theories that the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were complicit in the siphoning of millions of dollars from the Ukrainian people and that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. (The latter is “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services,” according to President Donald Trump’s former point person for the region, Fiona Hill.)
Derkach’s dossier was not flagged for officials inside the State Department until months later, when Derkach began holding press conferences and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, reiterated the same talking points as Derkach on a range of issues. But officials inside the U.S. intelligence and national security apparatus, with the help of officials on the ground in Kyiv, had drafted reports warning that Russian proxies, including Derkach, were attempting to undermine the 2020 election process in America.
Seven current and former U.S. officials spoke with The Daily Beast about Derkach, his relationship to Trump loyalists, and the escalating warnings about Derkach’s activities. Those warnings extended to leaders on Capitol Hill who learned that Ukrainians with ties to Russia were inserting themselves in the U.S. election. Last week, the Treasury Department blacklisted Derkach as an “active Russian agent.”
The blacklisting has caused problems for one legislator in particular: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who is nearing the end of a probe into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine—specifically, the discredited notion that the then-vice president halted a corruption probe that might have interfered with his son Hunter’s business interests there. It’s a would-be controversy that’s been fueled by a nexus of Trump allies and pro-Russian Ukrainians. During Trump’s impeachment, the story was publicly discredited, but Johnson has said the imminent result of his probe will be damning for Biden. “What our investigations are uncovering, I think, will reveal this is not somebody we should be electing president of the United States,” Johnson told a local Wisconsin TV station on Tuesday.
Those kinds of comments have prompted sharp rebukes, even from Republicans, about the use of a Senate committee as a vehicle for an explicitly political venture—and for Russia’s election-meddling hopes. In December 2019, as Politico first reported, then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) warned Johnson about his investigation into the Bidens and Ukraine. Burr told Johnson that the probe may only further Russia’s ambitions to undermine the 2020 election, according to two individuals familiar with the matter.
It is unclear whether Johnson received any intelligence briefing or other warning that specifically mentioned Derkach. According to a source familiar with the GOP probe, Derkach did not arrive on the Democratic side’s radar until late 2019. Asked by The Daily Beast if Johnson had been warned, or specifically briefed, about the threat posed by pro-Russian Ukrainian figures, a spokesperson for Johnson did not provide comment as of press time.
But by the early months of 2020, those observing the course of the Johnson investigation up close clearly saw Derkach’s links to a Ukrainian self-described source of the investigation, the Giuliani associate and former Ukrainian diplomat Andrii Telizhenko. At that point, said the source, it should have been clear to all involved that Russian disinformation underpinned the Johnson inquiry. Derkach told Politico in July that he’d sent materials related to Biden to members of Congress, including to Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), his partner in the probe.
But despite this information, and despite Burr’s overture, Johnson pushed forward. “Johnson is just a contrarian in nature. If you come to him and say that the Ukraine stuff seems fishy, he will very likely just tell you it’s his investigation and to get lost,” said a Republican close to the administration.
That raised concerns among intelligence officials and fellow lawmakers that the Wisconsin Republican was promoting claims that U.S. intelligence has already debunked—and that the boosting of such material would sow further distrust in the election.
On Wednesday, with the conclusion of Johnson’s probe nearing, those tensions spilled onto the floor of the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Democratic leader, introduced a resolution “calling for an end to the use of congressional resources to launder Russian disinformation through Congress.” Schumer said the allegations that Johnson has aired are the same ones pushed by Derkach and argued that Johnson has “wittingly or unwittingly” promoted Russian disinformation.
“Members of the Senate,” followed Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “have been presented with specific warnings about these Kremlin-backed conspiracies and lies, again and again, including in classified settings.”
Johnson indignantly responded that it was Democrats who had enabled Russian meddling attempts. He strenuously denied dealing with Derkach at all—and even professed not to know the Ukrainian. “We did not accept any information from Mr. Derkach whatsoever,” said Johnson. “I don’t know who Derkach is… Yet Democrats persist in pushing this false allegation. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure our committee has alleged anything yet.”
Suspicions about Derkach reached senior levels of the Trump administration by the early spring of 2019, after pro-Russian Ukrainians, aligned with Trump aides like Giuliani, ramped up a smear campaign against the then-U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch. One former senior administration official recalled contacting a colleague in the intelligence community to find out where the false narrative was coming from. That was when the official remembered first learning about Andriy Derkach.
“I was aware by the end of that conversation that he was more than a Ukrainian parliamentarian,” the senior official told The Daily Beast. The U.S. intelligence official left no doubt that Derkach was a Russian intelligence asset. One other individual who spoke to The Daily Beast said it was “somewhat unclear” in the spring of 2019 how close Derkach’s ties to Russia ran—if he was being paid, for example—and if the Ukrainian politician was merely passing on Russian disinformation or if he had been directed to promote it.
By early April 2019, at least two intelligence reports circulated to the administration about individuals suspected of involvement in foreign initiatives to interfere in the upcoming election. Each report contained about five names, the ex-senior official said. Derkach’s name was among them. It is unclear, however, if those spring 2019 reports specified that Derkach was an “active Russian agent,” as the Treasury Department put it.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined comment for this report.
Despite U.S. intelligence warnings that Derkach was involved in foreign subversion of the 2020 election and the Yovanovitch smear, the State Department famously took no action to protect her. Foggy Bottom recalled Yovanovitch in May 2019, about a month after those warnings. By July, President Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart for “a favor, though”: a public announcement of a corruption investigation into Joe Biden.
In May, Derkach ramped up his attempts to pass on his disinformation about the Bidens and Ukraine’s alleged election interference. He contacted Americans he’d formerly worked with or knew from their time working in the country for the U.S. government. Giuliani flew to Kyiv that month to meet with Ukrainian politicos and businessmen in an effort to pressure the government to open an investigation into whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election and into the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine.
On Wednesday afternoon, Giuliani told The Daily Beast he handed over documents to the State Department that he’d gathered from individuals in Kyiv willing to aid his work. Giuliani planned to meet Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat, on his initial trip to Ukraine in May 2019 before he canceled. The Washington Post and BuzzFeed reported that Telizhenko met Giuliani in New York that same month. The former New York City mayor declined to answer whether he ever briefed Trump on Derkach’s findings, saying, “I can’t tell you what I discussed with my client.”
‘SOMETIMES RUMORS ARE TRUE’
But even if Giuliani was explicitly warned about Derkach, such warnings might have backfired. “The nature of the Trump inner circle—whether that’s the president himself, people in or out of the administration, on Capitol Hill, or Rudy Giuliani—is that because of their views towards the intelligence community, if you come to them and say this guy might be an asset of so and so, it just makes it more likely that they double down on the relationship. That’s how toxic things are now,” said the Republican close to the administration.
By the time Giuliani traveled to Ukraine in May, he was in contact with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two operators born in the former Soviet Union who helped set up meetings for the former mayor in Ukraine. Parnas and Fruman became major characters in the impeachment trial of Trump as several witnesses described their backdoor attempts to work with Giuliani to pressure Ukraine to open investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens. Both men were indicted last fall for allegedly violating campaign finance laws, activities first exposed by The Daily Beast.
As Derkach circulated disinformation packets and Fruman, Parnas, and Telizhenko coalesced around the Giuliani endeavor, former U.S. officials say other Ukrainian politicos attempted to get in on the action. One former senior U.S. official said a current adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, before joining his team, reached out to Telizhenko and Giuliani in an effort to draw closer to the Trump administration.
In the summer of 2019, as the Trump administration took steps to withhold military aid to Ukraine to force the Zelensky administration to announce a Biden investigation, additional, updated reports were drafted and circulated inside intelligence circles outlining the ways in which Russia was relying on proxies, including Ukrainian individuals, to spread disinformation relevant to the 2020 presidential election. Derkach was listed in at least one of those reports as a part of the Russian campaign, two former senior U.S. officials said.
Derkach kicked his messaging campaign into high gear that fall. He held several press conferences, sometimes with other parliamentarians with close ties to Russia. And in December, during the height of the impeachment process, Giuliani appeared again in Kyiv, this time to meet with Derkach. Derkach posted a photo of the two holding documents and smiling. (Despite meeting Derkach in person in December, Giuliani said he’d first connected with him in November.)
By then, Derkach and Giuliani were using strikingly similar language. Derkach blasted the so-called black ledger that purported to show millions in illicit payments to former Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort; Giuliani called the ledger a “stinko document.” Derkach claimed in a dossier he attempted to circulate around Washington that “officials of the embassy of Ukraine in the United States” “distor[ed] the public image of the US presidential candidate D. Trump by disseminating inaccurate information.” Giuliani accused “Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, members of it, the [Ukrainian] ambassador, the embassy in collecting specifically dirt, described as dirt” on Trump.
That claim was first championed by Telizhenko, who worked in the Ukrainian embassy in Washington and became a partner of Giuliani over time. (Derkach, Telizhenko, and Giuliani all appeared in an anti-Biden television series produced by the Trumpist network OAN, and Giuliani has interviewed both Derkach and Telizhenko on his YouTube video series Common Sense about the Bidens.)
But Telizhenko said he soured on Derkach over time. He told The Daily Beast that he warned Giuliani about working with the Ukrainian parliamentarian.
“There were a lot of rumors going on about his background—that he might be working for the Russian government or the Kremlin. I didn’t know a lot about his background, but I had heard these things,” Telizhenko said in an interview Wednesday. “The rumors were also about… that he was working for someone—Russian or American, I don’t know. Sometimes rumors are true. Sometimes they are not. I knew he was doing something but I didn’t pay attention.”
Two sources, a current senior administration official and an ex-official, said that in the closing months of last year, word had whipped around the upper echelons of the Trump White House about a roster—a “no-fly list,” as the current official described—of names of individuals suspected of involvement in U.S. election interference, a key topic of scandal during the Trump-Ukraine saga and the resulting impeachment drive on Capitol Hill. Derkach’s name was on it.
“There were several people for, if you were smart, you would avoid them and the information they were peddling, and just say, ‘Well, Rudy’s just doing his own thing, I guess,’” said the former senior official, who said high-level aides, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, were aware of the list. (Bolton did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
This official also said they weren’t aware of any serious effort to persuade Trump to rein in Giuliani, nor were they aware of anyone reaching out to Giuliani to tell him to stop. Neither source knew of any time when Trump was verbally briefed on the list.
“What good would that have done?” the current official remarked.
Johnson launched in earnest the probe into Burisma, the energy company that Hunter Biden consulted for, immediately after Joe Biden had won the South Carolina primary and cemented his status as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the narrative of Ukraine and supposed Democratic corruption has drawn in the Wisconsin senator for years, and during Trump’s impeachment, Johnson often teased a fuller investigation into Biden’s ties to Ukraine, which by then had become central to the GOP’s impeachment counter-programming.
Johnson, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s panel for Europe and has frequently traveled to the region, was among the first prominent U.S. politicians to amplify claims and theories known to have been fueled by pro-Russia actors like Derkach. Johnson has endorsed the narrative that the government of Ukraine tried to undermine Trump during the last election—a story that Derkach has also been pushing since 2017. In an Aug. 10 letter describing his current investigation, Johnson explained that its origins date to 2017, when his committee focused on Ukraine as the alleged source of the real foreign collusion in the prior year’s presidential race. He lamented that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tasked the Intelligence Committee with the interference probe, “sidelining” his own investigation.
Though Derkach has claimed to have sent material to GOP committees on Capitol Hill, Johnson strenuously denied speaking with him, dealing with him, or even knowing who he is. Johnson claims Democrats are the ones relying on Derkach’s supposed disinformation. “Our investigation relies on U.S. documents from U.S. agencies and U.S. persons—there is no Russian disinformation in our record,” said Johnson during a meeting of his committee on Wednesday morning.
But to Democrats who have been skeptical of Johnson’s probe, the question of whether he has taken information directly from Derkach is beside the point—thanks to the frequency with which Derkach and Johnson have made similar claims.
In press conferences and conversations with Giuliani on his video show Common Sense, Derkach has alleged that Hunter Biden “stole” more than $16 million from the Ukrainian people when he accepted a payment from the energy firm Burisma. “The funds were obtained by criminal means,” Derkach claimed in a November 2019 press conference.
In his Aug. 10 letter, Johnson said he had not targeted the Bidens for investigation but, rather, “their previous actions” had put them in the crosshairs—and said he could “not disagree more” with the idea that there was no evidence of wrongdoing or criminal activity by the Bidens in Ukraine.
Derkach has also claimed that Joe Biden blocked Ukraine from investigating corruption allegations regarding Burisma. Johnson has made similar assertions, claiming that Biden had conditioned a $1 billion loan to Ukraine on the firing of a prosecutor who was probing Burisma. (This narrative is complicated by the fact that many in the U.S. and the international community had called for the firing of that prosecutor, Viktor Shokin; Johnson himself signed a 2016 letter recommending “urgent reforms” at the office.)
To Democrats, the parallel arguments made the connection clear. “The Russian government is again interfering in our election,” Wyden said from the Senate floor on Wednesday. “This has been confirmed by our intelligence community. Its interference campaign includes disinformation about Vice President Biden and the work he was doing to fight corruption in Ukraine. To spread this information, Russia enlists the help of characters like Andriy Derkach and Andrii Telizhenko.”
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