Conspiracy theories related to the Trump–Ukraine scandal
Since 2016, U.S. president Donald Trump and his allies have promoted several conspiracy theories related to the Trump–Ukraine scandal. One such theory seeks to blame Ukraine, instead of Russia (as supported by all reliable sources), for interference in the 2016 United States presidential election. Also among the conspiracy theories are baseless accusations against Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and several elements of the right wing Russia investigation origins counter-narrative.
The conspiracy theory was based largely on speculation on internet message boards and repeated across conservative media and contains multiple disjointed threads of unfounded allegations. According to FBI witness interview notes released in October 2019, upon hearing news of a hack of a Democratic National Committee server in June 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort speculated Ukraine rather than Russia was culpable. The New Yorker found that reporting of the conspiracy in the right wing media was initiated by Peter Schweizer, a former Breitbart News contributor and president of The Government Accountability Institute, "a self-styled corruption watchdog group chaired and funded by conservative mega-donor Rebekah Mercer" and founded by Steve Bannon.
Trump had long felt that the conclusion of the United States Intelligence Community and the Mueller Report – that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 election to benefit him – might undermine the legitimacy of his election as president. He and his allies – most notably his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — promoted an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government had interfered to benefit Hillary Clinton, in coordination with Democrats, the digital forensics company CrowdStrike and the FBI, alleging the Russian government had been framed. Trump falsely asserted that CrowdStrike, a publicly owned American company, was owned by a wealthy Ukrainian oligarch. The conspiracy theory claimed that the company — which had investigated a hack of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) server — had planted evidence on the server to implicate Russia, and that the FBI had failed to take possession of the server to verify that claim. Although the FBI did not take possession of the server, CrowdStrike had provided the FBI with an image and traffic logs of the server to conduct its own analysis, which led the Mueller Report to concur with the intelligence community that the server had been hacked by Russian intelligence. As president-elect, Trump had been briefed by top American intelligence officials that American, British and Dutch intelligence had attributed the DNC hack to Russia by hacking into Russian intelligence networks and observing stolen DNC emails there.
Trump also asserted without evidence that Ukraine was in possession of the DNC server, as well as Hillary Clinton's deleted emails. Trump and Giuliani asserted Ukraine's involvement also included the Trump–Russia dossier, which was echoed by congressman Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump defender, during an impeachment inquiry hearing in September 2019. The conspiracy theory later evolved to include baseless allegations of corruption by Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in their activities in Ukraine. In November 2019, Trump ally senator Rand Paul extended the conspiracy theory by asserting without evidence that the anonymous whistleblower who had triggered the Trump-Ukraine scandal "is a material witness to the possible corruption of Hunter Biden and Joe Biden," adding, "[the whistleblower] might have traveled with Joe Biden to Ukraine for all we know."
This led Trump to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into the matters, which triggered the Trump–Ukraine scandal, which in turn led to the opening of an impeachment inquiry into Trump. During an October 16, 2019, press meeting in the Oval Office, Trump asked about the DNC server eight times in rapid succession, which "they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership, individual, is from Ukraine." His staff had repeatedly attempted to persuade Trump that the conspiracy theory had no merit, including his former homeland security advisor Tom Bossert, who later remarked, "the DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go...If he continues to focus on that white whale, it's going to bring him down."
In a parallel effort, Trump directed attorney general Bill Barr to "investigate the investigators" who opened the FBI investigation into Russian interference, supposedly for partisan political motives to harm Trump; allied intelligence services are alleged to have been part of the scheme. That FBI investigation led to the Mueller investigation, resulting in convictions of some Trump campaign associates. In September 2019 it was reported that Barr has been contacting foreign governments to ask for help in this inquiry. He personally traveled to the United Kingdom and Italy to seek information, and at Barr's request Trump phoned the prime minister of Australia to request his cooperation. One British official with knowledge of Barr's requests observed, "it is like nothing we have come across before, they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services."
Barr sought information related to a conspiracy theory that had circulated among Trump allies in conservative media claiming that Joseph Mifsud was a Western intelligence operative who was supposedly directed to entrap Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos in order to establish a false predicate for the FBI to open its investigation. That investigation was initiated after the Australian government notified American authorities in July 2016 that its diplomat Alexander Downer had had a chance encounter with Papadopoulos in May 2016 – two months before the DNC website hacking became known – and that Papadopoulos told him that the Russian government had "dirt" on Clinton in the form of emails.
On 2 October 2019, Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump supporter and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the leaders of Britain, Australia and Italy, asserting as fact that both Mifsud and Downer had been directed to contact Papadopoulos. Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the United States, sharply rejected Graham's characterization of Downer. A former Italian government official told The Washington Post in October 2019 that during a meeting the previous month, Italian intelligence services told Barr they had "no connections, no activities, no interference" in the matter; Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte later affirmed this. American law enforcement believes Mifsud is connected to Russian intelligence.
A core part of the narrative is the long-debunked conspiracy theory that CrowdStrike, a publicly traded company headquartered in California, is actually owned by a wealthy Ukrainian oligarch, and that the company — which had investigated a hack of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) server — had planted evidence on the server to implicate Russia, while asserting the FBI had failed to take possession of the server to verify that claim. "The server" is in fact 140 servers, decommissioned and located in the United States (not Ukraine, as Trump has claimed). The theory additionally says FBI agents were not allowed to examine the server because such action would expose the DNC plot, although in fact—and as documented in the Mueller Report—images and traffic logs of the DNC servers were provided to the FBI. This conspiracy theory originated from a "GRU persona, 'Guccifer 2.0', created to cast doubt on Russia's culpability in the DNC [intrusion]."
Political quid pro quo
During an October 17, 2019 White House press briefing, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney linked the DNC server conspiracy theory to the Barr inquiry, as well as to a quid pro pro for the withholding of military aid to Ukraine, stating, "Did [Trump] also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money." While the Justice Department had previously indicated that the Barr inquiry was examining if Ukraine played any role in the opening of the 2016 FBI investigation into Russian interference, a department official declined to comment on whether that included the DNC server theory. The New York Times reported Justice Department officials were confused and angered by Mulvaney's linkage of the DNC server, a possible quid pro quo, with Ukraine and the Barr inquiry. Hours later, Mulvaney released a statement denying he had made any suggestion of a quid pro quo.
- Alternative media (U.S. political right)
- Fox News controversies
- List of conspiracy theories
- Russia investigation origins counter-narrative
- John Solomon (political commentator)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (2017)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (2018)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (2019)
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump
- Shane, Scott (October 3, 2019). "How a Fringe Theory About Ukraine Took Root in the White House". The New York Times.
- Jane C. Timm (October 7, 2019). "Trump is pushing a baseless conspiracy about the Bidens and China. Here's what we know". NBC News. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
- Zoe Tillman (November 2, 2019). "Trump's Campaign Was Talking About The Conspiracy Theory That Ukraine Was Involved In The DNC Hack Back In 2016". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved November 4, 2019.
- Korte, Gregory; Mider, Zachary (October 3, 2019). "Trump's Story of Hunter Biden's Chinese Venture Is Full of Holes". Bloomberg News. Retrieved November 12, 2019.
- Mayer, Jane (2019-10-04). "The Invention of the Conspiracy Theory on Biden and Ukraine". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-10-14.
- "Mueller finds no conspiracy, but report shows Trump welcomed Russian help". Los Angeles Times. April 18, 2019.
- Stolberg, Sheryl Gay; Haberman, Maggie; Baker, Peter (September 29, 2019). "Trump Was Repeatedly Warned That Ukraine Conspiracy Theory Was 'Completely Debunked'". The New York Times.
- Murphy, Hannah (12 June 2019). "Cyber security group CrowdStrike's shares jump nearly 90% after IPO". Financial Times.
- Rizzo, Salvador. "Analysis | President Trump's alternate reality on Ukraine". Washington Post.
- Mueller Report, vol. 1, p. 40: "As part of its investigation, the FBI later received images of DNC servers and copies of relevant traffic logs."
- Sanger, David E.; Rosenberg, Matthew (July 18, 2018). "From the Start, Trump Has Muddied a Clear Message: Putin Interfered". The New York Times.
- Jane C. Timm (September 25, 2019). "Trump promotes conspiracy theory: Clinton's deleted emails are in Ukraine". NBC News. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
- "Rick Perry confirms Trump's Ukraine policy passed through Giuliani, recounts a wild call with Rudy". TheWeek.com. October 17, 2019.
- Quinn, Liam (October 21, 2019). "Trump tells 'Hannity' he wants AG Barr to 'find out what is going on' with potential ties between Hillary Clinton, Steele dossier and Ukraine". Fox News.
- "Impeachment Inquiry Transcript Shows Devin Nunes Desperately Trying to Tie Steele Dossier to Ukraine". lawandcrime.com.
- "Rand Paul Floated An Unfounded Theory That The Trump Whistleblower Has Ties To Hunter Biden's Work In Ukraine". BuzzFeed News.
- "CNN.com - Transcripts; Aired October 16, 2019 - 11:30 ET". cnn.com.
- "President Trump Meeting with Italian President | C-SPAN.org". c-span.org. October 16, 2019. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
- Shane, Scott (3 October 2019). "How a Fringe Theory About Ukraine Took Root in the White House". The New York Times.
- Stolberg, Sheryl Gay; Haberman, Maggie; Baker, Peter (29 September 2019). "Trump Was Repeatedly Warned That Ukraine Conspiracy Theory Was 'Completely Debunked'". The New York Times.
- Mayer, Jane (4 October 2019). "The Invention of the Conspiracy Theory on Biden and Ukraine". newyorker.com.
- "Holding Ukraine hostage: How the president and his allies, chasing 2020 ammunition, fanned a political storm". Washington Post. October 4, 2019.
- Prokop, Andrew (30 September 2019). "Trump and Barr have been urging foreign governments to help them investigate the Mueller probe's origins". Vox. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
- "UK intelligence officials shaken by Trump administration's requests for help with counter-impeachment inquiry". The Independent. November 1, 2019.
- LaFraniere, Sharon; Mazzetti, Mark; Apuzzo, Matt (December 30, 2017). "How the Russia Inquiry Began: A Campaign Aide, Drinks and Talk of Political Dirt". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
- Mazzetti, Mark; Goldman, Adam; Benner, Katie (6 October 2019). "Barr and a Top Prosecutor Cast a Wide Net in Reviewing the Russia Inquiry". NYTimes.com.
- https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/LOG%20to%20Australia%20Italy%20UK.pdf October 2, 2019 (Retrieved October 22, 2019)
- Zapotosky, Matt; Dawsey, Josh; Harris, Shane; Helderman, Rosalind S. (6 October 2019). "Barr's review of Russia investigation wins Trump's favor. Those facing scrutiny suspect he's chasing conspiracy theories". washingtonpost.com.
- Momigliano, Anna (October 23, 2019). "Italy Did Not Fuel U.S. Suspicion of Russian Meddling, Prime Minister Says". The New York Times.
- Mazzetti, Mark; Benner, Katie (30 September 2019). "Trump Pressed Australian Leader to Help Barr Investigate Mueller Inquiry's Origins". NYTimes.com.
- Horowitz, Jason (2 October 2019). "First Barr, Now Pompeo: Italy Is Hub of Impeachment Intrigue for Trump Officials". NYTimes.com.
- Lutz, Eric (July 24, 2019). "Republicans Use Mueller's Silence to Push Conspiracy Theories; Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and Louie Gohmert leveraged the special counsel's non-responses into conspiracy-minded rants designed to placate the base". Vanity Fair. Condé Nast. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
- Giuffrida, Angela (2 October 2019). "US attorney general 'met Italian officials to discuss Russiagate'". theguardian.com.
- Bump, Philip (1 October 2019). "Analysis | Government-by-conspiracy-theory rides again". washingtonpost.com.
- Helderman, Rosalind S. (June 30, 2019). "'The enigma of the entire Mueller probe': Focus on origins of Russian investigation puts spotlight on Maltese professor". Washington Post.
- Poulsen, Kevin (July 16, 2018). "Trump's 'Missing DNC Server' Is Neither Missing Nor a Server". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on July 17, 2018. Retrieved September 29, 2019.
- Poulsen, Kevin (September 25, 2019). "The Truth About Trump's Insane Ukraine 'Server' Conspiracy". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on October 11, 2019. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
- Mueller, Robert S., III (March 2019). Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election (PDF) (Report). p. 40. Retrieved September 29, 2019 – via the United States Department of Justice.
As part of its investigation, the FBI later received images of DNC servers and copies of relevant traffic logs.
- Sullivan, Eileen (September 25, 2019). "How CrowdStrike Became Part of Trump's Ukraine Call". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 26, 2019. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
- Shear, Michael D.; Rogers, Katie (October 17, 2019). "Mulvaney Says, Then Denies, That Trump Held Back Ukraine Aid as Quid Pro Quo". NYTimes.com.