As President Donald Trump prodded his Ukraine counterpart to investigate his potential 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden, he also made another request, one that stems from outlandish conspiracy notions that Trump has embraced and emboldened in recent years.
According to the summary the White House released Wednesday of a July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the U.S. president also wanted the European nation to investigate CrowdStrike, the California-based cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and concluded that Russian intelligence operatives were responsible for the breach.
Trump’s focus on an investigation targeting Biden in the conversation, as well as the former vice president’s son, Hunter, has spurred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to open a formal impeachment inquiry.
It is unclear why Trump thought that Zelensky would have any reason to investigate a private U.S. cybersecurity company.
In the White House’s summary of the call, the section on Crowdstrike is broken up by two ellipses — suggesting that the notetaker couldn’t keep up with Trump’s rambling, it was too incoherent to merit detailed memorialization in an official document, or the president’s staff was trying to cover something up.
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.
From the information we do have, it appears that Trump has mashed multiple conspiracy theories together in his brain and reached the very false conclusions that:
1. Russia was not responsible for the DNC hack (multiple U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that it was).
2. The DNC’s server is missing, which is evidence of a cover-up (there is no single server and no DNC machines are missing)
3. Crowdstrike is a Ukrainian company run by a Ukrainian oligarch who falsely accused Russia of the cyberattack against the DNC. (Crowdstrike is based in Sunnyvale, California; its co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is Russian-American.)
No evidence supports any of the above contentions.
The “Missing” DNC Server Conspiracy
When the DNC found it had a security breach in 2016, it hired CrowdStrike to investigate what happened and who was behind the attack. CrowdStrike carried out an analysis and said it immediately discovered two Russian hacker groups — known as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear — had targeted the DNC and illegally obtained its private information.
After the FBI in 2017 launched its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, CrowdStrike provided investigators with its analysis of the DNC hack and what is believed to be a digital duplicate of the hacked servers. But the fact that CrowdStrike provided a digital copy and forensic analysis of the hack rather than the hardware of the servers was seized on by conspiracy theorists who alleged that CrowdStrike had somehow falsified the reports to frame Russia.
These theories claimed that the “server” is missing and is proof of a cover-up, an accusation completely without evidence, as there isn’t really one physical server that the DNC used but instead dozens of servers ― some of which are cloud-based ― which it was forced to decommission or rebuild due to the hack. The evidence CrowdStrike provided to the FBI is essentially an exact copy of the information on those various servers and a snapshot of the activity on them from the time of the attack, which cybersecurity experts say is the most important thing for investigators rather than the physical hardware.
Cybersecurity experts have widely repudiated the conspiracy theory, as did former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose probe led to the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials for their role in hacking the DNC. Mueller’s report extensively detailed the Russian hacking operation, and CrowdStrike has rejected the allegation that it withheld or falsified any information.
“With regards to our investigation of the DNC hack in 2016, we provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI,” a CrowdStrike spokesperson told HuffPost. “As we’ve stated before, we stand by our findings and conclusions that have been fully supported by the US Intelligence community.”
Conspiracy theorists, including the president of the United States, have persisted in promoting the idea that there was a missing server, and tied-in their accusations with broader conspiracies of a so-called “deep state” of federal agencies working to oust Trump.
The CrowdStrike conspiracy theory became prominent enough that Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser, tried to use it as part of his defense as he faces trial on charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress. Stone’s lawyers claimed that the search warrants the FBI used were obtained using unauthenticated information because it was based on CrowdStrike’s reports, an argument that a federal judge rejected on Tuesday.
What Does Ukraine Have To Do With It?
The already false idea that CrowdStrike is part of an elaborate cover-up is further muddied by the efforts of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and conspiracy sites such as InfoWars to push the theory that Ukraine and the DNC teamed up to create damaging information about Trump.
Trump appears personally convinced that Alperovitch, the Crowdstrike co-founder, is Ukrainian and that the company is Ukraine-based.
Referring to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, Trump told the Associated Press in 2017 that “they brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based” in response to the DNC hack.
“Crowdstrike?” the interviewer asked.
“That’s what I heard. I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard,” Trump said.
When Trump says he “heard” something, he’s usually not talking about information he gleaned from the multitude of reliable sources available to him. He’s usually describing something he heard from Fox News or an unreliable Twitter source.
The result is that the president of the United States is now one of the leading peddlers of disinformation on a country with an increasingly tenuous grasp of the facts.
On Wednesday, Trump proved just how willing he is to embrace any conspiracy theory offered to him, as long as it confirms what he already believes. During a joint appearance with Zelensky at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump was asked if he believed some of Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of state are in Ukraine, and he responded enthusiastically.
“I think they could be, you mean the 30,000 that she deleted? Yeah, I think they could very well — boy that was a nice question. I liked that question.”