On July 30, Lindsey Graham was in his office in Washington when he pressed his ear to a phone. A staffer named Debbie patched the senator through to a man waiting on the other end of the line, and Hulusi Akar, the defense minister of Turkey, introduced himself.
Akar urgently wanted to speak to Graham about a matter that had divided his country and the United States. Earlier that month, Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., had finally gotten a delivery of a Russian-made S-400 missile system, designed to take out American-made F-35 fighter jets. Turkey's ordering of the Russian missiles had been a huge boon for its relationship with Moscow, but America, a far richer and more powerful ally, was furious and threatening sanctions.
Graham had been monitoring the situation closely. In the days before Akar called, Graham had talked to the Turkish foreign minister and was trumpeting the offer he’d made him: Don’t activate the Russian missiles and sign a free-trade agreement with the U.S. instead. Several big questions loomed: Was that offer still on the table? Was Trump willing to put his political weight behind such a deal? How far was the president willing to go to support his counterpart in Turkey, the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan? It seems Akar thought—perhaps not unreasonably—that Graham might be able to give him some insight into Trump’s thinking and that of his colleagues on the Hill. After exchanging some pleasantries with Akar—whose stilted English was delivered with a tough-to-place accent—Graham made clear that he was in a position to help.
Of course, there was one important fact the caller didn’t mention. He wasn’t the defense minister of Turkey. He was Alexey “Lexus” Stolyarov, one half of a Russian phone-prankster duo, along with Vladimir "Vovan" Kuznetsov. They had made their name pranking extremely high-profile people, including Sir Elton John and French president Emmanuel Macron. Their ability to access these people, and the substantive foreign-policy discussions they would lure them into, has made observers wonder if Lexus and Vovan had connections to—and orders from—the Russian security services.
Reached on Thursday, a spokesman for Graham confirmed that the senator had been fooled. “We have been successful in stopping many efforts to prank Senator Graham and the office, but this one slipped through the cracks,” Kevin Bishop said in a statement. “They got him.”
On the call, the two men wasted little time in getting down to business.
“So as far as I understand, President Trump has entrusted you with this negotiations,” the man Graham assumed was Akar said, according to audio of the 16-minute call.
“Yeah, sort of,” Graham drawled. “Let me tell you what he told me: ‘I don’t wanna impose sanctions on our ally Turkey.’ ” Graham repeated the offer he had floated publicly: Don’t activate the S-400 and get a free-trade deal instead.
The man with the accent was skeptical.
“Yes, but what has President Trump said about free-trade agreement?” he asked.
“Okay,” Graham said. “So, he told me to call President Erdogan and make this offer.”
The purported defense minister was pleased to hear this, but was concerned about how Erdogan might react if there were even the whiff of sanctions. He wanted Graham to understand: Russia was not Turkey’s enemy, and Turkey was in a dangerous neighborhood.
“I don’t know what to tell you other than I am doing all I know to do and President Trump is very sympathetic to the situation of President Erdogan, but the Congress is not sympathetic,” Graham said. “Democrats are not sympathetic at all, and we’ve lost some Republicans here when it comes to Turkey. And Turkey’s too valuable of an ally to get in a dispute with.”
And then the senator pressed a point that now—several months after the call, and with America’s relationship with Turkey growing more complicated by the hour—has taken on new significance this week.
For years, Turkey has been at odds with the nationless Kurds and concerned about the buildup of Kurdish forces along its southern border. Turkey regards the Kurdish militia—the Y.P.G.—to be a threat. Washington has been closely allied with the Kurds and relied heavily on them in the fight against ISIS, which has only strengthened and emboldened the Kurdish militia. Sunday night, after a call with Erdogan, Trump gave him the green light to remove the Kurds from the region. On Monday, Graham, who has been a steadfast Trump booster, was apoplectic. He called into Fox & Friends to make sure Trump heard his displeasure. “This impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we’ve made, thrown the region into further chaos,” he said. “Iran is licking their chops. And if I’m an ISIS fighter, I've got a second lease on life. So to those who think ISIS has been defeated, you will soon see…I hope I’m making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is in my view.”
On Wednesday, Turkey began an operation in northeastern Syria to eradicate the Kurdish militia—and Graham ramped up his own assault on the White House’s decision. This time, he took to President Trump’s other favorite news source to register his rage. “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “NEWSFLASH,” he tweeted later in the day as his indignation mounted. “Erdogan and humane do not belong in the same sentence.”
The harsh language demonstrates just how quickly things have changed. Back in July, when Graham thought he was talking to the Turkish defense minister—and being a bit more between-us-girls chummy—he spoke of the Kurds very differently. “Your Y.P.G. Kurdish problem is a real problem,” he told the man he figured was Akar. “I told President Trump that Obama made a huge mistake in relying on the Y.P.G. Kurds. Everything I worried about has come true, and now we gotta make sure that Turkey is protected from this threat in Syria. I’m sympathetic to the Y.P.G. problem, and so is the president, quite frankly. So what I wanna do is make sure Turkey is not threatened by any settlement in Syria.”
With the American relationship with Turkey in such a new state of flux this week, the call from July provides a fascinating glimpse into how these issues were being talked about behind closed doors very recently. On Monday, responding to criticism from Graham and other Republicans that he was giving Turkey a free hand, President Trump tweeted that he would “destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy if “Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.” This is quite a turnabout from the July call, when Graham was peddling a free-trade agreement to the Turks that was potentially worth $100 billion, if only the Turks would promise not to activate the S-400. In fact, Graham was so serious about this quid pro quo that he was willing to go one step further. “I can set up a phone call between the two presidents if you want me to,” Graham said on the phone, adding that he’ll see President Trump next week. “You want me to do that?”
Again, the supposed Turkish official greeted the idea warmly and, perhaps sensing that the Southerner was in a giving mood, floated another idea to sweeten the deal: What if, in exchange for scrapping the S-400, the Americans hand over Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric Erdogan believes inspired a failed coup against him in the summer of 2016?
“I don’t know if you can do that, Mister Minister,” Graham said, chuckling politely. “I don’t want to get our president in trouble, making deals like that.”
This was not the first time that Lexus and Vovan had pranked Graham. They had gotten him good two years ago, posing as a Ukrainian official—one of their favorite ruses. At the time, Russia was in its own standoff with Turkey—the Turks had shot down a Russian plane in Syria; the Russians retaliated by banning and bulldozing imported Turkish apricots—and Vovan and Lexus were busy suckering Erdogan, whom they somehow managed to reach on his cell phone. When he picked up, the two pretended they were the Ukrainian president and prime minister. Then they pranked the actual Ukrainian president, whom they reached aboard his presidential plane, while posing as the president of Kyrgyzstan. (The two don’t limit their high jinks to world leaders: They tricked Sir Elton John into believing that Vladimir Putin was calling to invite him to a gay-pride parade in Moscow, where such an event is prohibited by authorities.)
When it comes to the United States, Vovan and Lexus are strictly bipartisan. They pranked the late John McCain and got California congresswoman Maxine Waters. They duped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into telling them that new sanctions against Russia were not forthcoming. And they even got the punctilious House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, into maybe believing that maybe they had some photos of Trump naked. (In case you were wondering where that conspiracy theory came from.)
I first met Vovan and Lexus in Moscow, back in the spring of 2017, when I talked with them while reporting a larger piece about why Putin had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. These two young men, who made it their mission to look as severe and adolescently phlegmatic as possible during our interview, insisted that they were just two guys having fun by, you know, prank calling world leaders on their cell phones to casually inquire about the very specific details of controversial policies. At the time, they had a show on Russian state TV, a province jealously monitored by the Kremlin. Putin’s spokesman constantly praised their work in the Russian press. They told me they were working on some mystery project with a Russian member of Parliament. They also did super chill and totally non-secret-services-like things such as hack the Skype account of the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the man who had handpicked Putin from obscurity and made him Boris Yeltsin’s successor, before being exiled to London, where he committed suicide in 2013. I asked them about their techniques, specifically about how they procured, say, the cell-phone numbers of presidents.
“Informers,” Lexus told me, unhelpfully.
“Informers?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Lexus offered. “Friends who know these people.”
Recently, however, Vovan and Lexus’s star has been in decline. The show on state TV had been canceled. The project with the MP had gone nowhere. These days, they pitch exclusives to publications who are still interested in this kind of thing.
In September, a day after I arrived in Moscow, Lexus was in my inbox, asking if I was interested in a crank call he’d placed to Lindsey Graham—and, perhaps more improbably, a recording of Graham calling him back days later to resume their discussion of American foreign policy.
But Lexus had one request for me. “Don’t mix us in with the Kremlin,” he said. “As in, don’t write about our connection with the Kremlin as an established fact.”
On August 12, Lexus’s phone buzzed. He’d purchased a Turkish mobile especially for the occasion, having told Graham at the end of their first discussion that he’d gladly serve as the senator’s point of contact going forward. “You will do all things through me,” he told Graham in July, his mangled English sounding unintentionally ominous.
“Yes, I will go through you,” Graham had agreed, offering to call him back after he briefed Trump on their discussions. Now Lexus was thrilled to see the senator calling.
“Thank you for taking my call,” Graham says. “I met with the president, I spent the weekend with him. We played golf yesterday and had dinner over the weekend, and we talked about our friends in Turkey, and I told him my desire was to change the conversation and to get you back in the F-35 program and sign a free-trade agreement and move it in a new direction, and that’s what he would like to do.”
“And did you tell him about our conversation?” Turkish Defense Minister Lexus asks.
“Yes,” says Graham. “We want to have a stronger relationship with President Erdogan. I personally like President Erdogan, I think President Trump likes President Erdogan. I think he’s a strong man, and we need to deal with strong people. So, uh, I think the next thing to do is to have the two presidents talk with each other.”
After going over the details of the proposed deal again—Turkey lays off the S-400 missile system and signs a free-trade agreement with America instead—Minister Lexus presses the point.
“What can you provide us?” he asks Graham. “What can I tell to my president?”
“Here’s what we should do,” Graham says. “Let me call the president back this afternoon. I’ll call you tomorrow, and here’s what I think we should do. We should have a call between the two presidents…and I think the conversation should be—you can tell President Erdogan that I spent the whole weekend with him, and the president does not want to sanction Turkey. He thinks that’s crazy. I personally think that’s crazy. We need to find a way around that.”
Among his Senate colleagues, Graham had always been known as a bit of a freelancer when it came to foreign policy, but during the Trump era, his entrepreneurial tendencies have been supercharged. If the Obama administration was fastidious about the rigors of the interagency process—sometimes to the point of paralyzing decision-making—the Trump administration’s foreign-policy shop is more of a loose network of free agents. Some work from inside the White House, like the people who ran Russia and Ukraine policy under the radar—and are at odds with Trump’s stated pro-Putin positions. Others, like his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, are not even part of the U.S. government. (Giuliani’s freelancing is a particularly stark lesson in the dangers of using such people to drive American foreign policy: His efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens by withholding congressionally allotted military aid has resulted in an impeachment inquiry of his client. Two of Giuliani’s associates have just been arrested on charges of channeling foreign money to American political candidates.)
Trump, who has never been one for briefing books or the intricacies of foreign policy, seems happy to let the various people vying for his favor scout out and pursue opportunities abroad. But this opens the administration up to being targeted by people like Lexus, who are trying to either gather information from the American system or inject disinformation into it. And with an administration this unbothered about procedure or verifying information—and a president who is more than happy to latch on to whatever information, however implausible, suits his narrative—this is what happens: a Kremlin-connected prankster calls up a senator, who then briefs the United States president on their conversation and then reports on the conversation to the prankster. (And one would think that Graham, whose mobile number Trump famously handed out when they were 2016 primary opponents, would know better.)
Before getting off the call, Graham reprises the game plan and assures the man he thinks is Akar that he will be on the line when Erdogan and Trump talk.
“I will call the president, and I will make sure that he feels comfortable talking to your president, and the conversation will be along the lines I just discussed,” Graham says. “I’ll check back with you in a couple of days.”
He never did. Instead, on Wednesday, as the Turkish military rolled into northeastern Syria, Graham introduced a bill to impose sanctions on figures in the Turkish government, including against the Turkish defense minister.
On Thursday morning Lexus texted me: “Graham sanctioned me :( “
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.
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Originally Appeared on GQ