Supporters of President Donald Trump have defended Donald Trump Jr. and his readiness to receive Russian materials on Hillary Clinton by finding examples when Democrats tried to do something similar. Fox News host Greg Gutfeld brought up the case of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
"Nothing will ever come close to Ted Kennedy meeting with the KGB in order to beat Ronald Reagan in 1984," Gutfeld said on his show July 15. "It was a quid pro quo. You help the Dems. We help the USSR. If it worked, we would still have the USSR."
As Gutfeld spoke, a graphic appeared on the screen of a 2009 Forbes magazine article, "Ted Kennedy’s Soviet Gambit."
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a claim like this, and it’s not the first time this Kennedy-KGB story tracked back to that Forbes story.
So is it true?
There’s not much to back up the tale under any circumstances, but Gutfeld went overboard even relative to the Forbes article. He said Kennedy met with the KGB, something the Forbes piece doesn’t even mention.
The Forbes article describes a 1983 memo from Viktor Chebrikov, then head of the Soviet spy agency, to Yuri Andropov, the then-general secretary of the Communist Party. Chebrikov wrote that Kennedy’s trusted friend John Tunney, a former senator from California, had passed along Kennedy’s interest in meeting with Andropov.
So even if you take the memo from KGB agent as gospel, there was no actual meeting between Kennedy and the KGB.
But what about the rest of the details and the memo? Was Kennedy looking to undermine Reagan? That’s murkier than you might expect.
In early 1983, Reagan’s plan to place medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe generated great concern among voters in the West and also within the leadership of the USSR.
The KGB memo detailed a proposal, ostensibly from Kennedy via Tunney, to de-escalate tensions.
Those steps included Andropov inviting Kennedy and Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., for a meeting in Moscow. The purpose "would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA." In addition, Kennedy’s middleman suggested that Andropov come to the United States where he could do interviews on the big three broadcast networks and speak to the "peaceful intentions of the USSR."
According to the memo, Kennedy’s goal was to "root out the threat of nuclear war, and to improve Soviet-American relations, so that they define the safety of the world."
The memo does mention Kennedy’s interest in the presidency, but the idea was for Kennedy to run in 1988. (Kennedy never ran and supported then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.)
The memo said, "Because he (Kennedy) formally refused to partake in the election campaign of 1984, his speeches would be taken without prejudice as they are not tied to any campaign promises. Tunney remarked that the senator wants to run for president in 1988."
Having served two terms, Reagan would not be on the ballot in 1988.
The memo gained attention when it was the basis of a news report published in the London Times in 1992, after the Soviet Union dissolved. When the report came out, Tunney told the London Times that it was "bull----." We reached Tunney in 2015, and he emphatically repeated that.
"The idea that I would be handling contacts with Andropov is preposterous," Tunney said. "This memo is completely false."
At the time, Tunney was a private businessman, but his friendship with Kennedy dated back to law school. He said that while he had made many trips to Moscow over the years and knew people in the KGB, the only political topic Kennedy ever asked him to broach with the Soviets was a deal to release dozens of dissidents. In exchange, Kennedy would make a speech at a university in one of the USSR’s republics in Central Asia. That took place several years earlier.
Tunney said that some time after the memo emerged, Kennedy asked him if he knew anything about it, and Tunney said, "this is crazy."
In 1992, a Boston Herald reporter reached Kennedy spokesman Paul Donovan. Donovan said Kennedy’s office had made other efforts to meet with Andropov, but nothing ever came of it. According to the Herald, Donovan said, "The rest of the memo is KGB fiction."
Denials from anyone tied to Kennedy might be expected, but Kennedy does have a sort of character reference in the arena of foreign relations from a Reagan insider, the administration’s disarmament negotiator Max Kampelman.
In his memoirs Entering New Worlds, Kampelman wrote that the Soviets liked working with Kennedy as a back-door conduit of information, and Kampelman welcomed the arrangement.
"I learned that the senator never acted or received information without informing the appropriate United States agency or official," Kampelman wrote.
In 1985, Reagan himself approved using Kennedy this way, and a working relationship grew between Kampelman and Kennedy.
While it is possible that the administration never caught wind of any contacts Tunney had with the KGB, it is worth noting that when the archivists at the Reagan Library searched the White House files on Kennedy, no episode involving the USSR in 1983 popped up.
In the Reagan years, Kenneth Adelman served as deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and then director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In 2015, we asked Adelman what he made of the KGB memo, and he dismissed it.
He had no idea if an overture might have been made, but even it had, Adelman said it didn’t matter.
"We knew senators were doing this sort of thing all the time, and we ignored it," Adelman said. "We didn’t think it was important, and it wasn’t. The administration didn’t care about it."
Stephen Cohen, a political scientist at Princeton University and New York University, suggested that KGB memos shouldn’t be taken at face value.
"As someone who has worked for years in once closed Soviet-era archives, I can tell you that many false documents can be found there," Cohen told PunditFact in 2015. "As the saying goes, rubbish in, rubbish out."
Paul Kengor, a political scientist at Grove City College who included the memo in his book about Reagan, The Crudasder, takes the memo seriously.
"The memo is absolutely accurate," Kengor said. "No question."
It is worth noting that the memo does not say how Tunney conveyed Kennedy's message beyond "through confidential contacts." In other words, the memo's author was relying on someone else and not speaking from his own experience, which introduces another level of uncertainty.
Gutfeld said that Kennedy met with the KGB in order to defeat Ronald Reagan in 1984. There is certainly evidence that Kennedy attempted to meet with Soviet officials, but it was with the approval of the Reagan White House.
The validity of a specific KGB memo saying Kennedy wanted to de-escalate tensions with Moscow over a U.S. plan to install nuclear missiles in Western Europe is widely questioned.
But more to the point, Gutfeld reached one conclusion that doesn’t add up. There is no evidence of Kennedy "meeting with the KGB." The evidence Gutfeld used on screen doesn’t support that contention.
We rate this claim False.