Trump supporter from Europe sues Robert Hyde for defamation

Anthony de Caluwe's suit relates to text messages Hyde sent to a Rudy Giuliani associate suggesting the Ukrainian ambassador was under surveillance.
Image: Robert F. Hyde
Robert F. Hyde with President Donald Trump.hydeforcongress.com

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By Anna Schecter and Josh Lederman

A Dutch supporter of President Donald Trump has filed a defamation suit against Robert Hyde, the GOP congressional candidate who sent text messages to Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas suggesting the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was under surveillance.

Anthony de Caluwe's suit filed Friday afternoon alleges Hyde made defamatory statements to NBC’s Connecticut station when he implied de Caluwe had pushed Hyde to send information about then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to Parnas.

"Someone was asking me to do it and I had his contact info, and so I just did," Hyde told the NBC reporter, referring to de Caluwe as the source and Parnas as the person whom he texted.

The WhatsApp message Hyde sent to Parnas stated: "She [Ambassador Yovanovitch] talked to three people, her [Yovanovitch] phone is off, her computer is off, we have a person on the inside."

Hyde told NBC News he had copied and pasted the language from a message that de Caluwe sent him.

When the NBC reporter asked if Hyde acted as “the middle man,” Hyde responded, “That’s what I think, but like I said I don’t have the conversations.”

The suit states that de Caluwe did not know who Parnas was, and never directed Hyde to contact Parnas. It also states that de Caluwe’s reputation “has been damaged beyond repair” and seeks at least $30,000 in damages.

"The statements made and published by Hyde are intentionally vilifying by conjecture and innuendo and xenophobia that, when considered together, paints a picture that de Caluwe is corrupt and committing illegal acts," says de Caluwe's lawsuit, which was filed in a state court in Palm Beach County, Florida.

For his attorney, de Caluwe chose Peter Ticktin, a Florida lawyer who has claimed on several occasions to have gone to military boarding school with President Donald Trump and known him throughout his life.

Reached by phone Friday, Hyde told NBC News that he was planning to sue de Caluwe as well, for $1.5 million, for defamation, libel and slander. He said de Caluwe had harmed his reputation and his bid for Congress in Connecticut.

Hyde said he didn’t recall how he ended up talking with Parnas or de Caluwe about Yovanovitch and was awaiting production of records that others have turned over to the House to refresh his memory about what had happened.

“This guy obviously had a relationship with Parnas or some s--- and had me relay the message,” Hyde said, referring to de Caluwe.

The possible surveillance operation on Yovanovitch came to light last week in encrypted text messages released by the House. Ukraine's government has opened a criminal investigation, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. will investigate as well.

De Caluwe confirmed to NBC News last week that Hyde had indeed asked him for information about Yovanovitch's whereabouts but he had declined to help Hyde.

"I informed him it’s against the law," de Caluwe said on Jan. 17.

But then a new batch of text messages released by House Democrats seemed to corroborate Hyde's claim that he was a middleman in the supposed surveillance operation. The texts include screenshots of WhatsApp messages about Yovanovitch’s whereabouts sent from a Belgian phone number to Hyde, who then forwarded those screenshots to Parnas. NBC News identified de Caluwe as the initial sender of the texts by matching the WhatsApp profile picture and digits in the phone number to various online profiles for de Caluwe.

De Caluwe then changed his account, acknowledging he had sent the texts to Hyde. A representative for de Caluwe, Karyn Turk, said that de Caluwe is a 52-year-old Dutch citizen who works as a financial adviser and travels frequently to Belgium. She said de Caluwe doesn't know Parnas, but began a "playful exchange" with Hyde about the ambassador after seeing Hyde post about her on Facebook.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the new claims that the surveillance operation was a joke would negate the need for further investigation or whether authorities in the U.S. and Ukraine would continue to probe whether Yovanovitch was actually under physical and possibly electronic surveillance.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has demanded an investigation and requested documents from the State Department, calls echoed by Yovanovitch's attorneys and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In her testimony at the House impeachment hearing, Yovanovitch said that when Trump fired her in May, the State Department told her she needed to return to the U.S. on the next plane because of her security. Trump, in his now-famous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Yovanovitch was "bad news" and was "going to go through some things."

The evidence released by the House last week also includes a WhatsApp audio message turned over by Parnas in which an accented voice says, "It's confirmed she's in Ukraine." It’s not clear who the speaker is on the recording.

The emergence of a possible surveillance operation on Yovanovitch in Ukraine by Trump supporters became the latest perplexing offshoot of the impeachment scandal, with new details coming to light just as senators were sworn in last week for the Senate trial on whether to remove Trump from office.

In the first tranche of text messages released earlier that week by the House emerged a new character: Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut with a history of controversial behavior and vehement support for Trump.

There have been few indications that any surveillance operation was actually in place. Pompeo has said that the department would investigate but that he suspected much of what had been reported about a potential surveillance operation would ultimately prove false.

Asked how he'd met de Caluwe, Hyde told NBC News by text: "He came to me once at Trump Hotel DC and think I met him the first time at a fundraiser at Mar a Lago or the Breakers."

De Caluwe said he had first met Hyde at a VIP rally for Trump in Tampa, Florida, and again later at the Trump hotel in Washington. He said "people told me to stay away from Hyde."