This tape provides the first hard evidence of Russia’s clandestine attempts to fund Europe’s nationalist movements, and the apparent complicity of some senior figures from the far right in those attempts pic.twitter.com/w14LAwY0Lw— Alberto Nardelli (@AlbertoNardelli) July 10, 2019
Six men sat down for a business meeting on the morning of October 18 last year, amid the hubbub and marble-columned opulence of Moscow’s iconic Metropol Hotel, to discuss plans for a “great alliance.”
A century earlier, the grand institution was the scene of events that helped change the face of Europe and the world: Czarist forces fought from inside the hotel as they tried and failed to hold the Bolsheviks back from the Kremlin in 1917, and it was here, in suite 217, that the first Soviet Constitution was drafted after the revolution succeeded.
The six men — three Russians, three Italians — gathered beneath the spectacular painted glass ceiling in the hotel lobby last October had their eyes on history too. Their nominal purpose was an oil deal; their real goal was to undermine liberal democracies and shape a new, nationalist Europe aligned with Moscow.
BuzzFeed News has obtained an explosive audio recording of the Metropol meeting in which a close aide of Europe’s most powerful far-right leader — Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini — and the other five men can be heard negotiating the terms of a deal to covertly channel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to Salvini’s Lega party.
The recording reveals the elaborate lengths the two sides were willing to go to conceal the fact that the true beneficiary of the deal would be Salvini’s party — a breach of Italian electoral law, which bans political parties from accepting large foreign donations — despite the comfort with which he and Europe’s other far-right leaders publicly parade their pro-Kremlin political sympathies.
“We want to change Europe,” said longtime Salvini aide Gianluca Savoini — who dined alongside Vladimir Putin at a government banquet to celebrate the Russian president’s visit to Rome last week. “A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty,” he continued over the clinking of coffee cups and buzz of conversation around the lobby.
As well as releasing excerpts of the Metropol tape — the existence of which is being revealed for the first time today — BuzzFeed News is also publishing a transcript of the entire recording.
Salvini — described enthusiastically by the Russians on the tape as the “European Trump” — did not attend the meeting himself, but he was in Moscow at the time. The previous day he gave a speech in which he denounced sanctions against Russia as “economic, social, and cultural folly” before reportedly meeting with the Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, and a powerful member of Putin’s United Russia party named Vladimir Pligin.
Although BuzzFeed News has been unable to identify the Russians at the Metropol meeting, the tape contains clear indications that high-level government figures in Moscow were aware of the negotiations — including those with whom Salvini had reportedly met the previous evening. The Russian negotiators can be heard referring to “yesterday’s meeting” without specifying the attendees, saying twice that they would have to feed details back to the “deputy prime minister,” and explaining they were hoping to get the “green light” from “Mr. Pligin” the following week.
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.
News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.
Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”
Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”