Who’s guilty of conspiring with the Russians to influence U.S. elections?
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Nick Freitas offers a name that might surprise you.
“Ted Kennedy tried to directly collude with the Soviet Union in order to try to defeat Ronald Reagan,” Freitas said on April 20 at Liberty University. “That is obstruction. That is something that ought to be investigated.
Freitas, a state delegate from Culpepper, made the comment during a debate against his two opponents in the June 12 GOP Senate primary: Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; and the Rev. E.W. Jackson of Chesapeake.
The candidates were asked whether the White House administration is “taking seriously enough” evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election on Donald Trump’s behalf and is poised to interfere with future elections. .
Freitas said the media has overblown the story about Russia’s efforts. “I think this idea that the press suddenly has that foreign nations try to meddle in our elections, as if this is something new or just happened during the Trump administration, is absurd,” he said.
Then, he lowered the boom on Kennedy, a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts who died in 2009.
Freitas is hardly the first Republican to point at Kennedy in the wake of reports that Trump’s presidential campaign stood ready to receive Russian information that was harmful to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Kennedy’s alleged collusion has been the fodder of many conservative commentators - including radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Greg Gutfeld.
But evidence that Kennedy conspired with Russians is, at best, fuzzy. Let’s take a closer look.
It can all be traced to a 1983 KGB memo - first reported by The Times of London in 1991.
In early 1983, Soviet Union and some in Congress - including Kennedy - were concerned about then-President Ronald Reagan’s plan to place medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. Viktor Chebrikov, who was head of the Soviet spy agency, sent a May 14 memo to Yuri Andropov, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. It outlined an alleged overture by a Kennedy frontman to help the USSR.
According to the memo, the frontman was Democrat John Tunney - Kennedy’s law school roommate at the University of Virginia who served one term in the U.S. Senate from California before being defeated in 1976. The memo said that Tunney, during a visit to Russia in May 1983, sent word through “confidential contacts” that Kennedy wanted to meet with Andropov in Moscow to discuss ways of defusing U.S.-Soviet tensions.
The memo says that Tunney said Kennedy also wanted then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., to participate in the meeting. The aim “would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing in appearances in the USA,” the Soviet spy leader wrote.
Kennedy, the memo says, wanted Andropov to visit the U.S. later that year and give interviews on the major TV networks about the “peaceful intentions of the USSR,” and the dangers of nuclear weapons expansion.
Kennedy’s overarching goal, according to the memo, was “to root out the threat of nuclear war and to improve Soviet-American relations, so that they define the safety of the world.”
Contrary to Freitas’ assertion, the memo does not say Kennedy was trying to defeat Reagan in an upcoming election. The KGB leader wrote that Tunney said Kennedy “refused” to run for president in 1984 when Reagan was up for reelection, although there was a possibility the Democratic Party would try to draft the senator. Kennedy was “convinced that none of the candidates today have a real chance at defeating Reagan” the memo says.
The head spy wrote that Tunney told Soviet contacts Kennedy was eying a 1988 presidential bid. (He didn’t run and Democrats nominated then-Gov. Michael Dukakis that year).
Does the memo hold up?
Everyone mentioned in the memo is now dead, so there’s no one with firsthand knowledge to answer questions. And Chebrikov, the KGB leader, seems not to have had firsthand knowledge when he wrote the missive. Remember, Chebrikov wrote that he was passing on information Tunney had given to a “confidential contact.”
Tunney died early this year. In 2015, he told PolitiFact that Kennedy once asked him if he knew anything about the memo and Tunney said “this is crazy.”
Tunney told PolitiFact he made many trips to Moscow as a politician and, later, a businessman, and knew people in the KGB. But he said the only overture Kennedy ever asked him make to the USSR was a deal to release dozens of dissidents in exchange for Kennedy giving a speech at a university in a Soviet republic.
Paul Donovan, once a spokesman for Kennedy, told the Boston Herald in 1992 that Kennedy did make efforts to meet with Andropov, the Communist Party general secretary, but the attempts were unsuccessful. “The rest of the memo is KGB fiction,” Donovan said.
Kennedy’s allies, of course, could be expected to defend him. But Kennedy’s integrity with the Soviets was also lauded by the late Max Kampelman - Reagan’s chief nuclear arms negotiator with the USSR. In his 1991 memoir “Entering New Worlds,” Kampelman wrote that the Soviets liked working with Kennedy as a backchannel. “I learned that the senator never acted or received information without informing the appropriate United States agency or official,” he wrote.
Kenneth Adelman, who headed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the mid-1980s, said in 2015 doesn’t know whether Kennedy made overtures to the Soviets and doesn’t really care. “We knew senators were doing this kind of thing all the time, and we ignored it,” he told PolitiFact. “We didn’t think it was important and it wasn’t. The administration didn’t care about it.”
Echoing many conservative commentators, Freitas said, “Ted Kennedy tried to directly collude with the Soviet Union in order to defeat Ronald Reagan.”
There’s evidence that Kennedy tried to meet with Soviet leaders, although the reason is disputable. A KGB memo cites fourth-hand intelligence that Kennedy wanted to offer a public relations strategy to help undermine a Reagan plan for nuclear escalation; a close American ally whom Kennedy allegedly chose as his intermediary said the senator only wanted a meeting to discuss the release of Soviet dissidents.
In either case, Freitas’ statement is greatly overblown. The meeting never occurred. Reagan’s top nuclear negotiator said the senator was diligent in telling proper U.S. officials about his contacts with Soviet officials. And there’s no evidence Kennedy was trying to “collude” with the Soviets to “defeat” Reagan. To the contrary, the KGB memo accurately said Kennedy would not seek the presidency in 1984, adding that Kennedy thought Reagan’s reelection that year was certain.