President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and a key Ukrainian ally in their plot to smear Former Vice President Joe Biden have both tried to distance themselves from collaborator Andriy Derkach after he was sanctioned and outed as an “active Russian agent” by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Rudy Giuliani, who worked with Derkach and whose work as Trump’s lawyer and top Biden-dirt-digger culminated in his own client’s impeachment, told The Daily Beast on Friday that he was no longer in touch with the Russian intelligence asset.
Asked if he was going to continue communicating with Derkach, Giuliani—who has since started working with the Trump 2020 campaign—simply replied, “Haven’t talk[ed] to him in months.” Asked if this week's news means his friendship and collaborations with Derkach are over, Giuliani tersely responded, “No idea.”
According to Giuliani, no one from the Trump administration or elsewhere in the president’s orbit or inner circle ever warned him not to meet with Derkach, even though the Ukrainian lawmaker has long been under scrutiny for his Kremlin ties. Giuliani said nobody had even bothered checking in with him, after all this time and scandal, to express their reservations about Derkach.
In his first substantive comments since Derkach was sanctioned, former Ukrainian diplomat Andriy Telizhenko claimed the Russian asset had never been a core member of the team along with him and Giuliani, who were looking to manufacture a political scandal in Ukraine that could damage Biden and his son Hunter ahead of November’s election.
“I never liked Derkach, never knew much about his background,” Telizhenko told The Daily Beast. “The methods Derkach used—including leaking some recordings—caused harm for the team. The U.S. intelligence services must have found solid evidence about the background of that man. I am sure that everybody who knows Derkach is not surprised to hear about the sanctions.” (After publication, Telizhenko reached out to explain that when he said “team” he meant “the Trump administration and [its] team.”)
The Daily Beast previously reported that Derkach met with Giuliani in Kyiv last December after the Ukrainian lawmaker began to push a series of flagrantly untrue conspiracy theories claiming that he had enough evidence to bring down Biden and Trump’s previous presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Although Telizhenko claims not to have been a close ally of Derkach, the pair have a history of working with Giuliani on propagating debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. They’ve also team up with the president’s personal lawyer to dig up information about the Bidens and their political dealings in Ukraine. Telizhenko told Buzzfeed News in July that he warned Giuliani about working with Derkach because of his “pro-Russia associations.” Perhaps coincidentally, that article was published the same day the intelligence community offered warnings about Russian “proxies” interfering in the upcoming election.
Before this summer breakup, the three men seemed to have something of a symbiotic relationship. Giuliani has interviewed both Derkach and Telizhenko on his YouTube video series “Common Sense” about the Bidens. Derkach appeared for separate interviews with Giuliani in February. It appears that Telizhenko acted as a translator during Derkach’s meeting. (“I did not act as a translator for the Derkach interview with Mr. Giuliani but was asked a couple of days later by Mr. Giuliani to do a voiceover [for a video] after my meeting with Mr. Giuliani,” said Telizhenko after publication.
All three men also participated in a three-part One America News Network (OAN) documentary on the Ukraine impeachment “hoax” which aired in December 2019. Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to meet with Telizhenko and Derkach. When asked for comment about Derkach on Friday afternoon, the network’s president Charles Herring responded with a 167-word text message. None of those words mentioned Derkach.
In his meetings, Giuliani said he collected hundreds of pages of documents outlining Biden’s corruption in Ukraine, saying the information would expose the presidential candidate as a “fraud.” Telizhenko helped Giuliani during his trip, he said, but claims he and the rest of his “team” did not arrange the Trump adviser’s meeting with Derkach. (Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a Ukrainian gas tycoon accused of embezzlement, has also worked with Giuliani in the past. He was arrested in Germany in December 2019 around the time of Giuliani’s trip to Kyiv.)
Telizhenko told The Daily Beast that former lawmaker Andrey Artemenko, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship in 2017 for proposing a deal to lease Crimea to Russia, set up the meeting between Giuliani and Derkach in December. Artemenko, under the name Andry Kuchma, filed paperwork with the U.S. Department of Justice this spring to work in the country to help set up meetings between Derkach and members of Congress, including members of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.
“It makes sense that [Telizhenko] would want to try and distance himself from Derkach now. It’s laughable but not surprising,” said one former senior U.S. official who worked on Ukraine policy. “He doesn’t want what happened to Derkach to happen to him. It would be wise of Telizhenko to not engage in the same behavior as Derkach if he wants to stay safe from sanctions.”
The Treasury and State departments have for months worked on putting together a plan for sanctioning Derkach, an individual with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast. That process included the revoking of Derkach’s U.S. visa earlier this year. It’s unclear if the administration has scrutinized Telizhenko to the same degree as Derkach. Telizhenko told The Daily Beast his U.S. visa is still valid and that he plans on returning to the U.S. when the coronavirus pandemic begins to wind down.
Despite trying to distance himself from Derkach, Telizhenko admits to smoking cigars with Giuliani and helping to organize his trip to Kyiv. “Mr. Giuliani and I traveled together from Budapest; we spoke for hours about corruption in Ukraine,” Telizhenko said. “I helped to organize a few meetings for Mr. Giuliani in Kyiv.” (Telizhenko said after publication that he “never admitted to… smoking cigars with Mr. Giuliani, only traveling with him back to Kyiv from Budapest.”)
Telizhenko said he had continued to work on exposing a so-called scandal in Ukraine that would damage Biden, and had given evidence to Sen. Ron Johnson’s investigation over the past year. “I have been [providing evidence] at the Senate, about the U.S. officials of high and low levels involved in corrupt schemes on the territory of Ukraine under the Obama administration,” he said. “The results of the Senate’s investigation will be published in two weeks.”
“Telizhenko and Derkach have credibility problems,” said the former senior official. “It’s been known for some time that Derkach is acting in Russia’s interests and is an active peddler of disinformation. Johnson knows this. He knows he can’t rely on this kind of information.”
Telizhenko said he had passed many emails from the U.S. officials to the Senate. “My prediction is that Donald Trump wins the election in November,” he said, claiming his “team would be happy to help with the peace process” in Ukraine in a second Trump term, by which he likely means appeasing Russian aggression in the region.
In a statement released on Thursday responding to Treasury’s announcement, Johnson and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) bizarrely accused the Democrats of relying on disinformation from Guiliani’s contact Derkach, falsely accusing them of interacting with the Russian agent:
“Foreign election meddling in all of its forms from any corner of the globe cannot be tolerated. We commend the Trump Administration for holding accountable perpetrators of foreign interference, and I hope my Democratic colleagues in Congress will finally stop relying on disinformation from the likes of Andriy Derkach to smear their political rivals.”
Since last year, Giuliani’s Biden-Ukraine crusade and his chumminess with figures such as Derkach alarmed various Trump lieutenants and allies on Capitol Hill, who viewed much of what Giuliani was bringing back to Trump and Washington as part of a disinformation campaign, or even Russian propaganda.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a top Trump ally and confidant on the Hill, told The Daily Beast in December that “Giuliani would be [wise] to share what he got from Ukraine with the [intelligence community] to make sure it’s not Russia propaganda. I’m very suspicious of what the Russians are up to all over the world.” (At the time, Giuliani simply insisted that what he’d obtained was “not Russian propaganda.”)
However, Graham’s criticism was muted, if not absent, on Friday and he declined to address Derkach or Giuliani specifically when asked in a brief phone interview. The GOP senator instead offered up “just a general proposition.”
“No matter what comes out of the Ukraine, we need to make sure the intelligence community takes a good look at it… because businesses and other entities there are easily manipulated,” Graham said. “My advice would be to keep your guard up… with anything that comes out of the Ukraine… I believed that then and believe that now. That doesn’t mean you can’t look at abuse of power or misconduct, [however].”
Given Giuliani’s current, Biden-related work with the Trump campaign, Giuliani’s recent collaborations with a Russian agent brings back uncomfortable echoes of the Kremlin “collusion” narrative that haunted the first Trump campaign and the administration for so long. However, it’s a parallel that Team Trump appears to be shrugging off. Two senior Trump campaign officials and another source close to the team say they aren’t aware of anybody on staff who sees this as any serious concern this week.
“If the ‘Resisters’ want to make this campaign about Russia again, that would be a terrible strategy. Have at it,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign.
UPDATE 5:55pm: This story has been updated throughout with additional comments from Telizhenko.