On 11 March 2016, three months before the European referendum, and long before anyone had started to wonder about foreign interference in the two political cataclysms of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – the Russian embassy in London put out a press release.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, had made a speech at Chatham House a few days earlier. A speech in which he noted that “the only country who would like us to leave the EU is Russia”. And the embassy had taken exception.
A couple of hundred miles away, in Lysander House, Catbrain Lane, Bristol, a modern office block on a busy roundabout that serves as the headquarters of both Eldon Insurance – owned by local businessman Arron Banks – and the Leave.EU campaign team – funded by Arron Banks – it seems to have caught someone’s eye.
The press release said it showed Russia “being dragged into the domestic debate on Brexit” as part of a “wicked Russia thesis”. Written more in the language of a slighted lover than a nation state, it claimed that “this was “unfair”, and the government needed to “explain itself”. “We wouldn’t have dwelt on it,” it said, had the British government not alluded to the Russian threat “at every opportunity”. The Leave.EU team appeared to think so, too. A message from an employee to Banks and Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s press spokesman and Banks’s business partner, sent on the same day – 11 March 2016 – says: “Pretty strong stuff from the Russian embassy! Risky area but this might possibly be worth using for a tile?” (A “tile” is an image that they could use in social media messaging, on Twitter or other platforms.)
Last week, the Observer published details of multiple meetings between Banks and Wigmore and the Russian embassy, the details of which they confirmed when they passed the original emails to the Sunday Times in order to try to scoop us. The documents seen by the Observer suggest Banks replies: “I think we should – let’s draft a press release in response to the Russian letter.”
The documents suggest that the employee’s response included a press release he says he has drafted on “the great looming threat” of Russia, though he notes that one of the sentences is optional as it “may be seen as too overtly Russophile”.
Wigmore responds: “Suggest we send a note of support to the Ambassador.”
It’s a brief exchange between colleagues – the language is matter-of-fact, the tone workaday, the import that there’s nothing unusual here. But two years on, in the midst of the Trump-Russia investigation, against the backdrop of a tumultuous week in parliament, including a parliamentary committee hearing at which Banks and Wigmore attacked MPs and then walked out, it suggests an extraordinary relationship.
The foreign secretary of Britain had made critical remarks about a hostile foreign power. And, so these documents appear to suggest, prompted the Leave.EU team to swing into action in support of the hostile foreign power. And, astonishingly, to write a personal note of support to the country’s ambassador.
Well done, Russia! 🇷🇺
Crush ISIS ✅
No nonsense. pic.twitter.com/89OCnZ7ktj
December 12, 2017
Was the “personal note of support” sent? We don’t know, but it’s a fascinating, revealing, and disturbing insight into the nature of the relationship between officials representing the Russian government and the main funder of the Leave campaign. A relationship that was, until now, partly covert and hidden. And which Banks conceded in parliament on Tuesday that he’d lied about for two years.
This was the campaign headed by Nigel Farage, whose close friend and ally, Steve Bannon, had been Trump’s campaign manager and who said, on Wednesday: “I have never received any Russian financial or political support…”
And it plunges Britain directly into the same nexus of relationships that is the focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Two years on, we are in the dark about so much. What was the exact nature of Farage’s Leave.EU campaign’s relationship to the Russian government? Why did it exist? And to what end?
Just last week, Farage robustly denied any improper relationship with the Russians on his radio show.
So far, all that we can say for sure is that, for the last two years, Banks and Wigmore have lied about it. And, it’s this, perhaps, that raises the most critical question of all: why?
A week and a half ago, a fellow journalist, Peter Jukes, showed me this material for the first time, and my jaw dropped. I’d left parliament where I’d heard Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, give evidence to the investigation into fake news to a parliamentary inquiry over many hours. And later that night, I found myself looking at a computer screen that shone on a light on a part of the investigation that I had never expected to uncover.
Arron Banks (second from left), Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Andy Wigmore (second from right) at Trump Tower. Photograph: Wigmore/Finn/WENN
This was material – obtained legitimately – from inside the Leave.EU campaign. There were names, times, dates. Meetings. Official invitations. Gold deals. And, in a starring role, Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, a name I knew instantly from FBI documents, who had been named by Mueller as a high-level intermediary between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
There were references to the content of the astonishing email that Wigmore was said to have sent to his contact at the Russian embassy in August 2016. Farage had been on the campaign trail for Trump when his aide and fundraiser, George Cottrell, was arrested by the FBI on money-laundering charges. Material seen by the Observer suggests Wigmore sent confidential legal documents, including the FBI indictment, to the Russian embassy.
And then there was the possibility of the gold deal. A deal, brokered by Yakovenko, and funded by the state-owned Russian bank, Sberbank, negotiated in the months leading up to the referendum, and announced on 5 July, 12 days after the country voted to leave the EU. There is no public record of whether Banks invested or not. Twelve days later, he tweeted: “I’m buying gold at the moment and big mining stocks.”
For me, though, it was the material we are publishing, about “tiles” and social media messages, that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Because I’ve been investigating this story, and this web of relationships between Trump, Russia, Cambridge Analytica and the Leave campaign for 18 months. And I’ve been on the receiving end of those “tiles”. Leave.EU has crafted social media messages targeted at me, aimed at discrediting me and my work.
Messages, which last autumn, turned nasty. For most of last year, my relationship with Banks and Wigmore was knockabout. We trolled each other – seemingly good-humouredly – online. I’d scored a hit early on when my very first article triggered two investigations, by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office. But, on the surface at least, they didn’t seem to hold it against me, or me them. But in late October/November, that changed. The public mood around Brexit was hardening. Crucial votes on the EU withdrawal bill were due and Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation had started to bite. And, it was again, a Russian embassy press release that seems to have precipitated it. On 25 October, the Russian embassy directly addressed questions about Russian interference with a statement on its website: “Russia doesn’t intervene into internal affairs of other states… I am calling on the unscrupulous journalists and politicians: stop imposing this fake agenda[…]”
Yakovenko calls on “unscrupulous journalists & politicians” to ditch “fake agenda” re Russian involvement in Brexit. https://t.co/wvM0ZUYzmL pic.twitter.com/ishQhLIGR2
October 25, 2017
Tweets from the embassy’s account revealed that the “unscrupulous journalists” seemed to be myself and Hugo Rifkind from the Times, and the politicians, two Labour MPs who’d raised questions on the subject in the house – Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant.
Later that same day, Leave.EU’s official account put out a “tile”: “Yakovenko calls on ‘unscrupulous journalists and politicians’ to ditch ‘fake agenda’ re Russia involvement in Brexit,” it said. It was … unsettling. I had felt like I’d been operating in a hostile environment for a long period of time – the next week I received a third legal letter from Cambridge Analytica – but this was different. We know how the Russian state deals with journalists. As did Banks and Wigmore. A few months earlier, Banks tweeted: “@carolecadwalla wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia!” A tweet he has now deleted.
“Wouldn’t be so lippy …” Arron Banks’s now-deleted tweet. Photograph: @Arron_banks
But then it escalated. Two weeks later, the Observer received the first of a series of extraordinary letters from the Russian embassy – one of which came personally to me from Yakovenko – about my reporting. “We think it’s a textbook example of bad journalism which raises quite a few questions regarding the true colours of the reporter.”
Then, on 13 November, a watershed moment, when Theresa May finally stood up and accused Russia of “weaponising information” and meddling in our democracy.
That night, I tweeted it out. “Finally!” I said.
The response was swift. The next day, Leave.EU’s official account tweeted a video, headlined: “@carolecadwalla takes a hit as the Russian conspiracy deepens.” It described me as “hysterical Guardian investigator Carole Codswallop”. The video was a clip of the film Airplane! and they had photoshopped my face into that of a “hysterical” woman being hit repeatedly around the head. The last frame showed a woman with a gun. In the background, the Russian anthem played.
I saw it, sitting at my kitchen table, where I live alone, and was, at first, bewildered. Bewildered, and over the course of the next 42 hours, freaked out. Hundreds of people reported it to Twitter and the police, but still it stayed up. On the evening of the second day, I asked my editor to intervene. That night, he wrote to Wigmore. The next morning, it finally came down. On Twitter, I wrote: “It was intended to unsettle me. And it did.”
The tweet from Leave.EU’s account with the modified clip from Airplane! Photograph: @LeaveEUOfficial
I have a different relationship to this story, to these revelations, perhaps, than most. Because I have experienced the impact of this relationship with Russia, first-hand. I have felt it and lived it – viscerally, emotionally. But it was always there, out in the open. There was nothing hidden or covert about the hundreds of social media postings and tweets that showed Leave.EU’s and Farage’s support of Russian policies and the Russian political agenda. What I hadn’t contemplated, until now, was that this may have been co-ordinated with the Russian government.
That Banks and Wigmore may have been communicating with the embassy when they were launching these attacks. That they may have sent other “messages of support” to the Russian ambassador when May made that speech, or I wrote my articles, or Bradshaw and Bryant asked their questions.
Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore have declined to answer any questions the Observer put to him.
Did the deal take place? The gold deal that Yakovenko made the introduction for? Journalists and investigators will hopefully now try to find out, to unravel the complex, offshore structures through which Banks runs his businesses.
Because what we appear to see through Banks and Wigmore is a linked series of relationships between the Trump campaign – via Steve Bannon – to the public face of Leave.EU’s campaign, Nigel Farage. Through Farage to Banks and Wigmore. And through Banks and Wigmore to the Russian government. Whether it’s a channel for anything else is for other specialist investigators to figure out. Because ever since Watergate, we’ve known that you need to follow the money.
But, in this the new age of information, there are new lines to pursue. One can follow the lies, for example. The meetings Banks and Wigmore admit they lied about, a third passport – a diplomatic one from Belize – that Banks told me about last year, but which he denied to MPs on Tuesday. Wigmore is the country’s trade envoy to the UK. A legal letter they told MPs they’d sent to the Atlantic Council but which the head counsel of the Atlantic Council told the Observer, many months ago, they had never received.
In 2016, Brexit and Trump were the first fake news elections. Though by “fake news”, one means sophisticated information operations, developed out of hybrid warfare techniques – pioneered by Russia and now aped across the world. In 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in, money was the sole source of power.
Today, information is also power. This is “asymmetric warfare”. It’s how an economically struggling power – Russia – can strike a blow against the richest nation in the world. Through weaponising words. And unleashing them in ways we can’t understand or even see.
Because you can also follow the tweets. Follow the Facebook posts. Follow the memes. It’s all out there: the Leave campaign’s intimate relationship with the Russian government appears public, visible, undisguised. Just as Banks – and his ghostwriter, Isabel Oakeshott – were careful to include the approach from the Russian embassy and a nine-hour “boozy lunch” in The Bad Boys of Brexit, is this a relationship between the Russians and the Leave campaign that is hiding in plain sight?
What we know now is that this relationship is deeper and more complex than we could have imagined. And that Banks and Wigmore lied about it: to the public, to parliament. And we don’t know why.
What we don’t know, or at least I don’t know, is whether this is collusion. If the Leave campaign colluded with the Russian government. That’s a word freighted with meaning and significance. A question that Farage won’t answer.
When I rang into his LBC phone-in show on Monday, he slammed down the phone on me, in what, in the video, looks like a moment of panic.
We don’t know if there was collusion. But here’s what we do know, what these communications suggest to us: that there was co-ordination.
The moment Nigel Farage hangs up on The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr during LBC show – video www.theguardian.com