The California congresswoman Maxine Waters has become the latest US politician to be fooled by Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexey “Lexus” Stolyarov, Russian pranksters alleged to have ties to security forces.
In a 10-minute phone call carried out late last year and posted to the prankster’s YouTube page this week, the senior Democrat thinks she is speaking to the 17-year-old Swedish climate crisis protester Greta Thunberg as part of a series called “Stars Save the Earth”.
Posing as Thunberg’s father Svante, Stolyarov tells Waters the pair are in North Carolina to discuss a threatened island called “Chongo-Chango”.
Waters praises Thunberg for making “quite a big, big, big, big thunder on this issue”.
Stolyarov also promises to tell Waters something “confidential” about the famous moment when Thunberg crossed paths with Donald Trump at the United Nations climate summit in New York in September.
A Thunberg impersonator says: “It is terrible what Trump is doing. I can’t eat or sleep when I see him on TV. It was terrible to meet him at the UN building. I have nightmares about it.”
She then details a supposed exchange with Trump, though in fact the encounter only involved Thunberg staring at Trump as he passed by.
According to the pranksters’ version of the event, Trump told Thunberg: “You’ll never achieve your goals, like those congressional fools who accuse me.
“I’ll tell you the truth: I really wanted to push the Ukraine president to put my competitor on trial. And he will go to trial with you, with [a bunch of] Democrats. … I would have a separate cage for all of you.”
Waters takes the bait, responding: “Oh my god, he mentioned the Ukrainian president?”
Offered an audio recording of Trump’s remarks, Waters says Democrats are working towards an impeachment case, a signal that the call took place before hearings into Trump’s approaches to Ukraine were held in Washington in November.
“If the public knew he talked to Greta like that,” Waters says, “… that will go against him, too.”
In a statement to the Washington Post, Waters, who in fact has the dubious distinction of twice being taken for a ride by the Russian pranksters, dismissed the latest episode.
“This was just another stupid prank,” she said, “by the same Russian operatives who have targeted many US elected officials, including Adam Schiff, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell and John McCain, and international heads of state such as Emmanuel Macron. The end.”
It seems unlikely, however, that she will be the last such victim. Kuznetsov and Stolyarov have been at work since 2014, trolling figures including Elton John and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. US politicians have been regular targets, strengthening claims the Russian pair are connected to political interference programs backed by the Kremlin.
The pranksters’ calls sometimes come with the offer of false but potentially compromising information. According to the Atlantic, a 2017 call to Schiff – the Democrat who last year led the impeachment inquiry as chair of the House intelligence committee – was supposedly from Andriy Parubiy, speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, and came with an offer to provide nude photos of Trump.
“We will try to work with the FBI to figure out, along with your staff, how we can obtain copies,” Schiff reportedly responded.
A spokesperson for the Californian congressman told the Atlantic they immediately suspected the call was not genuine and informed law enforcement.
Still, on the opening day of the impeachment hearings, Trump ally Devin Nunes used the Schiff call to accuse Democrats of seeking compromising material on the president.
“It might be time to ask yourself if you’ve gone out too far on a limb,” Nunes said.
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov deny ties to Russian security.
“We work for ourselves, for nobody else,” Stolyarov told the Guardian in 2016.