Who Fed Donald Trump His Ukraine Conspiracy Theories?

One of the more bizarre elements of Donald Trump’s self-inflicted Ukraine scandal is his seemingly genuine belief that some nefarious Democratic scheme is hidden on Ukrainian computers. And one of the most important questions we should be asking is where he got that information.

First, some context: while most of attention has focused on the White House’s hamfisted attempt to gather dirt on the Biden family and its apparently widespread (and illegal) misuse of classification to hide politically damaging and legally incriminating information, there is also another sideplot: his conspiracy theory that Clinton’s missing emails, and perhaps other nefarious things, are somehow being stored on Ukrainian servers. This is a reference to what is known as the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory, a very fringe right-wing conspiracy theory so bizarre it barely makes it way onto onto Fox News. Rachel Sandler breaks it down at Forbes thus:

  • Silicon Valley-based CrowdStrike was hired in 2016 by the DNC to investigate the origins of the hack. The company didn’t give the DNC’s physical server to the FBI, which has been seized on by conspiracy theorists as evidence of a cover up.
  • According to the theory, which has been prominent on right-wing blogs and news websites and repeated by Trump and former campaign consultant Roger Stone, Democrats and CrowdStrike concocted evidence to frame Russia for the hack in order to discredit Trump’s win in 2016.
  • The supposed evidence of Russia’s innocence relies on the belief that a DNC server has been hidden in Ukraine, possibly by CrowdStrike’s cofounder Dmitri Alperovitch.
  • That belief may stem from a statement by President Trump in a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, in which he questioned why the FBI didn’t look at the DNC server, that CrowdStrike is owned by “a very rich Ukrainian.” Alperovitch is actually a Russian-born American citizen.

The theory is, of course, totally bogus. It’s also an attempt to absolve Russia of its culpability in the hacking of the DNC:

Ultimately, the president seems to be alluding to an idea that alt-right commentators and pro-Russia sympathizers have pushed for years: that CrowdStrike was wrong about Russia hacking the DNC—and, moreover, that CrowdStrike intentionally blamed Russia for political reasons. CrowdStrike’s findings have, of course, been repeatedly affirmed by the intelligence community, the Justice Department, members of Congress, and the office of Robert Mueller. Last year the government indicted a dozen Russian intelligence officers for their role in the hacking plot…

These straw-grasping claims and distortions of fact are fuel for the fire of disinformation. Further, the notion that there is some missing “server,” and that the server might exist somewhere—like in Ukraine—has no basis in reality. The DNC’s network consisted of many servers and computers which either had be put out to pasture, rebooted, or rebuilt to rid them of malware and intruders. As the DNC explained in a 2018 lawsuit filed against the Russian government, it had to “decommission more than 140 servers, remove and reinstall all software, including the operating systems, for more than 180 computers, and rebuild at least 11 servers” as a result of the hacking.

The unanswered question in all this is how Donald Trump came to believe in this nonsense, and why he continues to believe it. His own employees and administration official tried again and again to disabuse him of these notions, but he refused to give them up:

President Trump was repeatedly warned by his own staff that the Ukraine conspiracy theory that he and his lawyer were pursuing was “completely debunked” long before the president pressed Ukraine this summer to investigate his Democratic rivals, a former top adviser said on Sunday.

Thomas P. Bossert, who served as Mr. Trump’s first homeland security adviser, said he told the president there was no basis to the theory that Ukraine, not Russia, intervened in the 2016 election and did so on behalf of the Democrats. Speaking out for the first time, Mr. Bossert said he was “deeply disturbed” that Mr. Trump nonetheless tried to get Ukraine’s president to produce damaging information about Democrats.

Rudy Giuliani has been significantly involved in the obsession over Ukraine, as his bizarre spiels on cable news networks have amply demonstrated. Most recently he claimed to have been attempting to prove that Donald Trump (and, by extension, the Russians) was “framed by the Democrats”–a notion that Trump recently promoted on twitter.

But it seems unlikely Giuliani has been Donald Trump’s primary conspiracy theory conduit. Rather, he seems to have been roped into it by Trump, and enjoys the cable news limelight.

One might think that Trump got the information from random corners of the internet. But the problem there is that the president barely knows how to use a computer, and has to have articles printed out for him and put on his desk.

So who was feeding him these conspiracies? Why did he continue to believe them even as his own intelligence services and White House staff were attempting to disabuse him of them?

We still don’t know. But we deserve to find out.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.