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.
In the call, Graham was primarily concerned with getting Turkey back into the F-35 program and urging the “defense minister” to refrain from using Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system, which was fully delivered to Turkey last month in defiance of requests from the U.S. and NATO.
But Graham also expressed sympathy for Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” and described the Kurds as a “threat.” Those private comments appear to contradict his public statements this week, in which he criticized Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria because it’s “wrong to abandon the Kurds, who have been strong allies against” the Islamic State.
“Your YPG Kurdish problem is a big problem,” Graham told the pranksters. He was referring to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a group that began fighting ISIS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015—with support from the U.S.—but is considered a terrorist group by Turkey because of its push to establish an autonomous state for the Kurds on the Turkish-Syrian border.
“I told President Trump that Obama made a huge mistake in relying on the YPG Kurds,” Graham continued. “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.”
Indeed, Trump acknowledged as much in a press conference on Wednesday, appearing to echo Graham’s private comments. “If you read today — a couple of reports saying that when President Obama started this whole thing,” Trump said. “As you know, it was started by President Obama; he created a natural war with Turkey and their longtime enemy, PKK. And they’re still there.” Turkey has been in conflict with the P.K.K., also known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, since the 1980s. Both Turkey and the U.S. consider it a terrorist organization.
After Trump issued a surprise statement on Sunday night announcing the removal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, Graham warned Turkey that the country would be sanctioned if it attacked the Kurds—which the Turkish military did just hours after American troops were removed from the area.
But on Wednesday, a senior adviser to Erdogan told CNN that Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had “reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is” prior to Trump’s announcement.
The pranksters managed to get Graham on the phone again a few days after the first call. In the second call, Graham says he met with Trump to discuss what the “defense minister” had told him. “We want a better relationship with Turkey. That’s exactly what he wants,” Graham said, referring to Trump and again urging Turkey to rethink the S-400 purchase.
Graham then raised an issue that’s been top of mind for Erdogan for years—the U.S. case involving Zarrab, who was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 32 months in prison stemming partly from bribes he paid to Turkish bank officers.
“And this case involving the Turkish bank, he’s very sensitive to that,” Graham said of Trump. “The president wants to be helpful, within the limits of his power.”
According to U.S. prosecutors, Zarrab and others used the Turkish bank Halkbank to “launder billions of dollars-worth of Iranian oil proceeds, ultimately creating a slush fund for Iran to use however it wished — the very harm that U.S. sanctions were put in place to avoid.” A senior banker at Halkbank was found guilty of working to evade sanctions on Iran, and Halbank itself could still face fines by the Treasury Department.
Zarrab also had ties to the Turkish government, according to a memo written in 2016 by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and was “engaged in a massive bribery scheme... paying cabinet-level [Turkish] governmental officials and high-level bank officers tens of millions of Euro and U.S. dollars” to facilitate his transactions.
Erdogan, wary of corruption being revealed in open court, fiercely lobbied high-level Obama administration officials for Zarrab's release after his 2016 arrest, the Washington Post reported at the time. At one point he even asked Vice President Joe Biden to have Bharara fired. Erdogan also sent his justice minister at the time to meet with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and argue that the case was "based on no evidence."
In the hoax call, Graham suggested that the president would try to help Erdogan regarding that case as best he could. “I like President Erdogan,” Graham told the pranksters. “I think President Trump likes President Erdogan. I think he’s a strong man and we need to deal with strong people."
Bishop, Graham’s spokesman, said in a statement that “it’s no secret Senator Graham has often traveled to Turkey and continued to speak with many members of Turkish government, including President Erdogan, about the relationship between our two countries."
"He has been clear he wants a stronger relationship and often talked about the importance of maintaining peace in northern Syria to prevent the reemergence of ISIS," Bishop added.
"With Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria the drive for better relations between our two countries has suffered a body blow. Turkey should immediately withdraw their military forces and America should reinstitute the safe zone concept to keep the peace in the region. Until this is done, Senator Graham will continue to push for severe, biting sanctions against Turkey."