An ardent European supporter of President Donald Trump admitted on Saturday to having sent supposed details about former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch's whereabouts that made their way to Lev Parnas, but claimed it was just "ridiculous banter" and that he never really had her under surveillance.
The possible surveillance operation on Yovanovitch came to light this 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.
The story took a bizarre turn on Friday when Robert Hyde, the GOP congressional candidate who had claimed to have Yovanovitch under surveillance, pointed the finger at another man: Anthony de Caluwe.
In texts to NBC News and Twitter posts, Hyde claimed that he had merely copied and pasted information he had received from de Caluwe and sent it to Parnas, the indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani.
Initially, de Caluwe denied involvement, telling NBC News in emails Friday that Hyde’s statements were "incorrect." He confirmed that Hyde had indeed asked him for information about Marie Yovanovitch's whereabouts but he had declined to help Hyde.
"I informed him it’s against the law," de Caluwe said on Friday.
But then a new batch of text messages released by House Democrats on Friday 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.
In a new statement Saturday obtained by NBC News, de Caluwe reversed course, admitting he had sent the messages to Hyde but insisting there was no actual monitoring of Yovanovitch. He apologized for "contributing to any confusion through these communications."
“My engagement in this exchange with Rob is something that has no credibility. My friendship with Rob was jovial and this exchange was just a part of a ridiculous banter," de Caluwe said. He added: "I truly love what the President is doing for America."
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.
"Anthony understands how these exchanges released in the media yesterday look," Turk said. "He has never had any contacts in the Ukraine."
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 truly under physical and possibly electronic surveillance, as the text messages indicated.
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 screenshots released late Friday by the House show that initially Hyde forwarded to Parnas the screenshots of his communications with de Caluwe. In subsequent texts to Parnas, he conveyed much of the same purported information about Yovanovitch’s whereabouts once again.
The evidence released Friday by the House 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 who wanted her gone has become the latest perplexing offshoot of the impeachment scandal, with new details arising just as senators were sworn in this week for the Senate trial on whether to remove Trump from office.
In the first tranche of text messages released earlier in the 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.
The texts showed Hyde telling Parnas that he had Yovanovitch under physical and possibly electronic surveillance in Ukraine. Hyde has since said the texts were him "just playing," and he told NBC News he’d been drinking when he sent them.
There have been few indications that any surveillance operation was actually in place. Pompeo said Friday 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."