President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer has been working closely with “an active Russian agent” trying to smear the president’s chief political rival.
That’s the conclusion of the U.S. Treasury Department, which on Thursday sanctioned one of Rudy Giuliani’s Ukrainian allies for interference in the upcoming U.S. elections. Andriy Derkach worked closely with Giuliani—and with the Trump-friendly cable network OANN—to push accusations of political misconduct against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Derkach, a member of Kyiv’s parliament and son of a former KGB officer, has also been supplying documents to Republicans on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is conducting an election-eve investigation into the Bidens.
Derkach—described by the Treasury Department as “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services”—stands accused of orchestrating a “covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives” about the Bidens via “edited audio tapes and other unsupported information,” which launched “corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Derkach has been cozying up to team Trump for months—meeting with Giuliani in Kyiv in December of last year to push the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election. (That’s “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services,” Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top aide for Russia policy, told Congress.)
Nevertheless, Trump’s media allies have been quick to run with Derkach’s claims. As The Daily Beast previously reported, John Solomon, the famously Trump-friendly and ethically-compromised former editor at The Hill, published a story mirroring Derkach’s assertions about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Meanwhile, the Russophilic, Trumpy cable channel OANN featured Derkach prominently in its series promising to “negate the Democrat impeachment narrative.”
In May, Derkach released edited audio recordings of what he claimed were compromising conversations between Joe Biden and former Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko. In the tapes, Biden praises Poroshenko for appointing a new prosecutor general and promises to sign a $1 billion loan guarantee in return for anti-corruption efforts. Derkach claimed that investigative journalists had leaked the phone calls to him.
Trumpworld figures framed the tapes as evidence of a long-running Republican conspiracy that Biden tried to force out the old prosecutor general to head off an investigation into the Ukraine gas company Burisma, where his son Hunter sat on the board. But Joe Biden’s campaign called the audio recordings a “nothingburger” and his team has denied that the former vice president’s push with Poroshenko had anything to do with Burisma. (Biden did not mention Burisma or Hunter Biden on the leaked tapes, and he has previously acknowledged that U.S. loans to Ukraine were tied to anti-corruption progress.)
Derkach claims that that he sent his information on the Bidens—which the Treasury Department described as “unsubstantiated”—to Sen. Johnson, who has been heading up a congressional committee to look into the Burisma affair. But Johnson and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) continue to insist that they have “neither sought out, relied upon, nor publicly released anything that could even remotely be considered disinformation.” But election security watchers have for months underscored the possibility that Johnson’s committee is laundering Derkach's disinformation through intermediaries such as Solomon as a way to create some distance between the investigation and the accused “Russian agent.”
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have hit back at Johnson’s probe and slammed Derkach’s efforts as election meddling. The Director for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) agreed, citing Derkach and the leaked tapes back in August as an example of Russian-backed interference in the 2020 elections, part of a “range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’’ The NCSC notes that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, are still hostile to Biden over the Obama administration’s past support of an independent Ukraine and its backing of anti-Putin opposition leaders.
Three other individuals linked to a Russian troll factory were sanctioned alongside Derkach on Thursday. The U.S. Treasury singled out Russians Artem Lifshits, Anton Andreyev, and Darya Aslanova as agents of the Internet Research Agency and its “Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin.” (Known as “Putin’s chef,” the fearsome Prigozhin also controls the shadowy Wagner mercenary group. Prigozhin was previously sanctioned over funding the Internet Research Agency [IRA] to meddle in the 2018 midterms.) Treasury accused Lifshits, Andreyev, and Aslanova of using “cryptocurrency to fund activities in furtherance of their ongoing malign influence operations around the world.”
In a separate action, federal prosecutors charged a Russian man with wire fraud conspiracy for his role working on behalf of the Russian troll farm the Internet Research Agency. The Justice Department alleged that Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits served as a “task manager” in the IRA’s “Project Lakhda,” its effort to sow division and interfere in elections in the U.S. Lifshits, according to the indictment, was listed in an employee roster discovered by federal agents, and acted as a translator, which meant he was likely “directly involved in social media messages and other messages directed at and intended to influence” the United States.
Derkach’s sanctions come on the same day that Microsoft revealed it had thwarted Kremlin-backed attempts to hack into nearly 200 political organizations, including a communications firm with close ties to the Biden campaign.