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Revealed: The Pro-Trump Playbook for Smearing U.S. Diplomats

Lachlan Markay, Erin Banco
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Foreign governments have settled on a new strategy to sideline American officials they don’t like: peddling conspiratorial dirt on those officials to portray them as enemies of President Donald Trump

The impeachment inquiry has revealed the success of that strategy in Ukraine, where ethically dubious officials teamed up with Trump’s personal attorney to remove a U.S. ambassador.

That ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, said at an impeachment hearing on Friday that “shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”

And, in fact, there has been a Hungarian government-backed campaign against a top National Security Council official; it was less successful than the campaign against Yovanovitch, though not for a lack of effort. And according to senior U.S. officials, the same strategy succeeded in scuttling a nominee to be America’s top diplomat in Albania.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that John Solomon, one of Rudy Giuliani’s favorite conservative columnists and conspiracy-peddlers, makes an appearance in both the Ukraine and Albanian dramas.

“We have permitted open season on our diplomats,” declared Fiona Hill, a former senior Trump White House national-security official, during her closed-door testimony to the impeachment inquiry. “Any one of us here could be subject to this kind of claims and these kinds of attacks, any single person who gets crosswise with any of these individuals or any of these countries, if they think that any of us are in the way.”

The attacks frequently invoke George Soros, the right-wing bogeyman and Fox News fixation. And they appear tailor-made to Trump’s idiosyncratic sensibilities, focusing on issues and controversies that tend to grab the attention of right-wing media—and, by extension, the president himself. The strategies also bear the hallmarks of the surreptitious campaign to undermine U.S. diplomats in Ukraine by people close to the president, chiefly his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Rudy’s Big Plan to Defend Trump on Ukraine: Play the George Soros Card

The strategy has played out in a diverse array of countries, from Europe to Africa to South America. But it’s gained renewed relevance amid an impeachment inquiry that is focusing on the inordinate influence that Trump allies outside the government have wielded over U.S. foreign policy—and the often murky interests using those allies to advance their own agendas.

Kathleen Kavalec, a career State Department official, was nominated by Trump to be the ambassador to Albania last July. She was quickly vetted by the White House and the State Department, and the typical consultations with diplomatic counterparts in Tirana had taken place without incident, according to a U.S. official familiar with the process. 

As the date of her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing arrived, Kavalec sat down for what she thought would be a perfunctory meeting with aides to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on Aug. 16, 2018, to introduce herself and prepare for the hearing.

Instead, according to a source familiar with the meeting, Kavalec found herself under interrogation. The Johnson aides wanted details of an October 2016 meeting between Kavalec and one of Trumpworld’s most reviled political villains, Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” of salacious and unverified allegations against Trump had circulated in law enforcement and intelligence circles, where officials were scrutinizing Russian contacts of individuals in Trump’s orbit.

It quickly became clear to Kavalec that Johnson was less interested in her qualifications as a diplomat, or in U.S. policy toward Albania, than he was in Kavalec’s supposed role in Steele’s anti-Trump “witch hunt.”

Johnson’s office says he didn’t oppose her nomination. But after the meeting, officials at the State Department, concerned that Kavalec’s hearing was about to turn into a show trial, pulled her from the witness stand. Weeks later, she was informed that no action would be taken on her nomination, and that when it expired at the end of the year, she would not be renominated. Kavalec was out of the running for the ambassadorship.

Neither Kavalec nor her colleagues at State knew at the time that a few weeks earlier, Johnson’s staff had opened up a line of communication with lobbyists for the Democratic Party of Albania, the country’s leading opposition party.

In June, the party had hired the Sonoran Policy Group, which bills itself as a “global private diplomacy” firm. SPG Chief Executive Christian Bourge reached out to Johnson’s senior policy adviser on Aug. 5. He reported briefing the adviser on “corruption/security/narcoterrorism issues.” But Bourge also brought up Kavalec’s nomination.

Neither Bourge nor Johnson’s office responded to requests for additional information on that communication, or subsequent correspondence between Johnson and Sonoran Policy Group. But Hill, in her congressional testimony last month, laid the blame squarely at DPA’s feet for the smear campaign against Kavalec.

“I believe that there was a hit done on her [by] the Albanian Democrats,” she said. The DPA “picked up information including the fact that she’d been mentioned in these exchanges with... Chris Steele, and used that to denounce her and to basically for the State Department to pull back her name.”

“This is another [instance] of somebody who was treated rather disgracefully,” she said. Hill herself was subject to similar attacks, she added. And “this was, unfortunately, the kind of actions that were taken” against Marie Yovanovitch, until this year the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

At the beginning of every new administration in Washington, foreign governments scramble to figure out how to get in the door with D.C.’s new powerbrokers. It didn’t take long for foreign governments to wake up to a new avenue specific to the Trump era: lavishing praise on the president, and going after the people and organizations that he—and the pundits who comprise his media diet—perceived as political enemies.

In Yovanovitch’s case, the allegations against the U.S. ambassador largely came from Ukrainian officials who wanted her removed from her post, apparently in part for impeding their efforts to land lucrative energy deals in the country. Yovanovitch was tarred as an anti-Trump Obama holdover in league with the president’s political opponents. The dubious allegations, including that she explicitly created a “do not prosecute” list foisted on Ukrainian authorities to protect Obama allies, were precisely designed to feed Trump’s preconceived notions of a sprawling and entrenched bureaucracy loyal to his enemies and determined to undermine his presidency.

It was a strategy that Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the impeachment inquiry, called “a vicious smear campaign” during a hearing Wednesday.

The campaign against Yovanovitch was also boosted by credulous voices in right-wing media, particularly in the pages of The Hill and under the byline of John Solomon, a conservative columnist who occasionally worked with Giuliani to unearth and spread dirt about Trump’s political opponents. Solomon was one of the chief purveyors of allegations by a disgraced former Ukrainian prosecutor targeted by U.S. officials trying to clean up Kyiv’s justice system.

It just so happens that another of Solomon’s targets earlier this year was Kathleen Kavalec and her October 2016 meeting with Steele. In a pair of columns in early May, he suggested that Kavalec’s communications with the FBI regarding Steele, in which she questioned some of his claims about Trump, were an early warning sign about Steele’s trustworthiness.

On the same day that the second of Solomon’s two columns published, Johnson co-authored a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterating much of Solomon’s reporting.

It’s not clear what DPA’s lobbyists said about Kavalec in their communications last year. But they definitely were floating other conspiracy theories in communications with State Department and White House officials. The firm Barnes & Thornburg, which the DPA hired prior in 2017, accused Albania’s ruling socialist party of doing the bidding of Hungarian billionaire George Soros—and top diplomat Tom Shannon, then the acting secretary of state, of throwing U.S. support behind that cabal.

The Albanians were far from the only foreign actor to use lobbyists to harp on about Soros. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s foreign affairs ministry brought on lobbyists in late 2017 that hammed the political opposition’s supposed Soros ties in sponsored columns for the Washington Times

The men behind a Guatemalan business group that hired U.S. lobbyists last year were simultaneously implicating Soros in supposedly nefarious schemes involving a U.S.-backed anti-corruption body in the country. Those allegations have since informed investigative work by pro-Trump groups such as Judicial Watch, which on Tuesday updated its supporters on efforts to expose details of supposed Soros involvement in Guatemalan efforts to combat corruption.

Most notorious among K Street’s Soros antagonists, though, has been former Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL). Mack crafted multiple memos, apparently designed for senior administration officials, attempting to portray Hill as a Soros functionary. 

According to Hill, Mack, who did not respond to a request for comment, lobbied Vice President Mike Pence’s staff directly to get her removed on those grounds. “I was deeply disturbed to find out that my résumé could be put in a filing of a [Foreign Agents Registration Act] report by Connie Mack and could be used as an exhibit to try to create a case against me to ask the vice president and his staff to have me fired for being a Soros mole in the White House,” she told impeachment investigators last month.

It wasn’t successful in her case. “They laughed him out of a hearing,” Hill said. Yovanovitch and Kavalec weren’t so lucky.

CORRECTION, 11/14/19, 10:42PM ET: This story has been corrected to reflect that Kavalec’s conversation was with Johnson’s staff, not the senator himself, and that it was a meeting, not a phone call. It has also been updated to reflect Johnson’s position on Kavalec’s nomination.

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