Rudy Giuliani. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI
Rudy Giuliani. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

Washington —  The Treasury department sanctioned Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who met with Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, in 2019, alleging he is a Russian agent trying to influence the 2020 US presidential election.

Between May and July of 2020, Derkach released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit US officials, the department said in a statement on Thursday. Three other people associated with the Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency were also sanctioned.

Derkach met with Giuliani in Kiev, even as top Ukrainian officials avoided the US president’s unofficial emissary. Giuliani’s actions in the country later factored into Trump’s impeachment.

Leaked recordings allegedly featuring Democrat Joe Biden, released in a heavily edited version by the Ukrainian legislator, involve phone conversations between Biden — at the time Barack Obama’s vice-president — and then-Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko. Derkach has previously said he got the files from investigative journalists.

“Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the US and elsewhere about the world,” Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement. “The US will continue to use all the tools at its disposal to counter these Russian disinformation campaigns and uphold the integrity of our election system.”

Though Trump regularly scoffs about “Russia-Russia-Russia”, dismissing evidence that Moscow sought to intervene in the 2016 presidential campaign to help him win, the president also often boasts that “nobody’s been tougher on Russia” than his administration. The action on Thursday may bolster that argument as the question of foreign interference again hangs over the election in November.

Democratic legislators said the sanctions action only underscored their criticism of Trump for failing to act forcefully against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

“This designation is long overdue and a pressing reminder that Putin and his cronies continue to try to interfere in our elections,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “The Trump administration has not done nearly enough to counter Putin’s sustained attack on our democracy, relying instead on these one-off sanctions, a whack-a-mole approach that does little to deter Putin and his oligarchs.”

Derkach and Giuliani did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The department said in its statement that Derkach “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian intelligence services”.

On the tapes, Biden appears to tell Poroshenko that $1bn in US loan guarantees will be provided to Ukraine once that country’s top prosecutor — widely believed to have been corrupt — was replaced.

In response to the tapes, Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, tweeted, “Yikes!!!! This is not a ‘perfect conversation’.” But Biden’s campaign said the tape was old news about a phone call he made for good reason. “They heavily edited this,” spokesperson Andrew Bates said, “and it’s still a nothing-burger that landed with a thud”.

‘KGB school’

Former Ukrainian leader Poroshenko has said that the audio files were “fabricated” and released by a graduate of Moscow’s “top KGB school”.

As the US was engulfed by allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Derkach pushed for an investigation into Ukrainian meddling in the vote — an unsubstantiated claim voiced repeatedly by Trump.

“Derkach has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 US presidential election,” Treasury said in its statement.

The Internet Research Agency, highlighted by the three other people sanctioned by Treasury on Thursday, has remained active since allegedly orchestrating Russian election manipulation efforts in 2016. The organisation has used fake social media accounts to undermine Biden’s candidacy ahead of the November vote. Facebook   and Twitter   said they were warned about the renewed Russian efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Hours after the department's action, the justice department announced that a criminal complaint was filed against one of those three for his role as a manager in “Project Lakhta”, which it called “a Russian-based effort to engage in political and electoral interference operations” by using stolen identities of Americans “to open fraudulent banking and cryptocurrency exchanges”.

Despite Thursday’s sanctions, Trump administration officials have recently maintained that China — not Russia — represents the worst foreign threat to US elections.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a news conference last week that China “has the most massive programme” to influence the election, after he was asked about a reported Russian campaign to disseminate disinformation about vote-by-mail services.

In a Twitter post after the sanctions were announced, White House spokesperson Judd Deere echoed Trump’s contention that “nobody has been tougher on Russia”.

Bloomberg 

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