Donald Trump pressed Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to help legitimize conspiracy theories about his Democratic rivals during a private telephone conversation in July, and again at a public meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday.
White House notes on the July call, released before the two presidents met in New York, showed that Trump urged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate false claims about the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s servers in 2016, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in getting Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired the same year.
The summary of the call shows that when Zelensky said that his country wanted to buy Javelin antitank missiles from the United States — using millions of dollars in American military aid the White House was blocking at the time — Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” The American president then presented shards of a conspiracy theory he’s invoked before: that the DNC computers were not hacked by Russian intelligence agents, as special counsel Robert Mueller concluded — rather, Democrats had framed Russia for the crime, with the help of a Ukrainian-owned cybersecurity firm.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” Trump said “they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it.” This is a frankly baffling sequence of sentences for anyone not deeply versed in the alternative-reality explanations broadcast nightly on Fox News in support of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that Russia sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign to help elect him president.
CrowdStrike, as Kevin Poulsen explained in the Daily Beast, “enters the picture because it’s the security firm the DNC hired to investigate the breach back in 2016, and the first of many to identify Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, as the perpetrator. A publicly traded company headquartered in California, CrowdStrike has nothing to do with Ukraine, except in conspiracyland, which pretends that CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is Ukrainian, and that he framed Russia for election interference both on the DNC’s orders and to punish Putin for invading his homeland.”
Alperovitch, however, is not Ukrainian. He is an American citizen who was born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. as a child.
The theory “is absurd for many reasons,” the New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth observed on Twitter. “The server is not in Ukraine; it’s sitting in the DNC basement. Despite Trump’s repeated claims Democrats withheld the server from the FBI, CrowdStrike and the DNC actually gave all their forensic evidence to the FBI.”
“This DNC-didn’t-give-the-server-to-the-FBI idea makes no sense,” Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted last year.
This DNC-didn't-give-the-server-to-the-FBI idea makes no sense.— Thomas Rid (@RidT) April 20, 2018
—disk images of many machines *in the network*
—memory dumps of *connected* boxes
—the adversary's movement in situ (network logs)
—other data, eg exfil behavior
*Not* some disconnected server
Trump previously raised the supposedly missing server while standing next to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at their summit in Helsinki last year. Asked by a reporter why he took Putin at his word that Russia had nothing to do with the hacking, despite evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump suggested that the matter was still in doubt because the Democrats had concealed evidence.
“You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server?” Trump asked. “Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I have been wondering that, I have been asking that for months and months, and I have been tweeting it out, and I have been calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know. Where is the server and what is the server saying?”
In Helsinki, the president also seemed to conflate the DNC server with the home email server Hillary Clinton used as secretary of state. On Wednesday in New York, as his Ukrainian counterpart shifted uneasily in his seat, Trump told reporters that he believed Clinton’s deleted personal emails “could very well be” hidden in Ukraine.
Trump also referred in his call with Zelensky in July and, at their news conference on Wednesday, to a false claim that has become an article of faith among his supporters: that Ukrainian officials had tried to help Clinton defeat him in 2016 by fabricating evidence of money-laundering by Paul Manafort, his then-campaign chair. If those documents were false, the thinking goes, the entire Mueller investigation should be called into question.
Although there is no evidence that this is true, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed on CNN last week that records of $12.7 million in secret payments to Manafort from the Ukrainian political party of his former client, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who was toppled in a popular uprising in 2014, had been forged. In fact, as Andrew Kramer of the New York Times reported at the time, others named in the secret ledger where the payments to Manafort were documented have confirmed the records are genuine.
“Our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump told Zelensky in the call. “There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.” He then referred to Mueller’s testimony to Congress about his investigation, which took place the day before the July call, and added, “They say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
Trump expanded on that idea while sitting with Zelensky on Wednesday, telling reporters that he had asked Ukraine’s president to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe by Giuliani.
“Rudy is looking to also find out where the phony witch hunt started, how it started. You had a Russian witch hunt that turned out to be two and half years of phony nonsense,” Trump said. “And Rudy has got every right to go and find out where that started. And other people are looking at that too. Where did it start? The enablers — where did it all come from?”
Murray Waas reported in the New York Review of Books on Wednesday that notes from “a person who participated in the joint defense agreement between President Trump and others under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including Manafort” indicated that “Manafort exhorted the White House to press Ukrainian officials to investigate and discredit individuals, both in the U.S. and in Ukraine, who he believed had published damning information about his political consulting work in the Ukraine.” Giuliani, Waas learned, was involved in those discussions, which lasted from early 2017 until May of this year, and began working “to obtain information that might provide a pretext and political cover for the president to pardon his former campaign chairman.”
According to Giuliani himself, it was in the course of this effort to find evidence that Ukrainians had colluded with the Clinton campaign to frame Manafort that he came across another baseless conspiracy theory he and Trump have pushed for five months now: that Joe Biden, as vice president, had abused his power to get Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired to shield his son from criminal investigation there.
As I reported in May, and again this week, while Biden’s son, Hunter, was asked to join the board of a Ukrainian gas firm suspected of corruption in 2014, his father pressed Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor the following year because that official, Viktor Shokin, had failed to pursue corruption cases — including one against the same firm. In other words, the evidence shows that the then-vice president had acted to make the prosecution of the firm paying his son more likely, not less likely.
At a public event last year, Biden boasted of how he had delivered an ultimatum from the Obama administration to Ukraine in late 2015: Remove Shokin and pursue an anti-corruption agenda or risk losing $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees. Biden was proud of his successful intervention, which was supported by other international donors to Ukraine and local anti-corruption activists who also demanded Shokin’s ouster for failing to pursue cases against former officials and crooked businesses that profited from state contracts.
Speaking to Zelensky in July, Trump said, “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.” In the context of the conversation, it was possible that Trump was referring either to Shokin, the prosecutor Biden worked to oust, or his successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who had sought to curry favor with Trump by meeting with Giuliani earlier this year. Lutsenko, like Shokin, was also criticized by reformers and activists in Ukraine, including Sergii Leshchenko, a lawmaker and journalist Giuliani attacked by name last week. “A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved,” Trump told Zelensky.
(The text of the complaint from the intelligence community whistleblower, which was released on Thursday, the anonymous official says that Trump was referring to Lutsenko, and trying to encourage the new president to keep him in his job since he had demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with Giuliani and promised to investigate the Bidens.)
The Ukrainian activists who faulted Lutsenko for failing to investigate corrupt former officials reportedly had the support of the former U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled to Washington two months early in May. “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that,” Trump added.
He then pressed Ukraine’s new president to open an investigation into Biden, the man he currently trails in general election polls.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said, referring to a suggestion that Attorney General William Barr would aid in the investigation of the former vice president. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”
Remarkably, Trump has successfully misled many of his supporters into believing that the video of Biden’s on-camera comments at the Council of Foreign Relations last year, recorded before a room filled with reporters and policy experts, meant that he was somehow caught on tape admitting wrongdoing, rather than simply speaking in public about something that was above board.
“The whole thing with the prosecutor in Ukraine,” Trump said while sitting with Zelensky on Wednesday, “this isn’t like, ‘Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t.’ He’s on tape doing this.”
Trump tries to mislead people into thinking Biden was caught on tape admitting wrongdoing, rather than speaking in public. "The whole thing with the prosecutor in Ukraine.... This isn’t like 'maybe he did it, maybe he didn't.' He's on tape doing this." pic.twitter.com/jdXuqD9bJA— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) September 26, 2019
Keeping up the fiction that Biden’s public comments were some sort of smoking gun, Trump added: “I saw this a while ago. I looked at it and I said, ‘That’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that.’ Now, either he’s dumb, or he thought he was in a room full of really good friends, or maybe it’s a combination of both, in his case.”
While Trump’s supporters pointed to the lack of any explicit statement from the president that he would release blocked military aid in return for helping to smear Democrats, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, suggested that the arms-for-investigations offer was clear.
Trump made his demand for “a favor,” right after Zelensky raised the issue of buying more Javelin antitank missiles with the aid money the White House had put a hold on before the call.
Ukraine’s need for Javelin missiles, to defend its territory from armored vehicles supplied to the Russian-backed separatists who hold much of the east of their country, has been central to its diplomatic relations with the U.S. for the past five years.
In February 2015, Michèle Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official who was then a leading candidate to serve as defense secretary if Clinton was elected president, and seven other former senior American officials issued a report urging the Obama administration to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine. The authors wrote that Ukrainian military leaders “had two primary requests for lethal military assistance: sniper weapons and precision anti-armor weapons, specifically the Javelin anti-tank missile. The current stocks of Ukrainian anti-tank/anti-armor weapons are at least 20 years old and reportedly have a 70 percent out of commission rate.”
The following month, President Barack Obama, under pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to avoid escalating the conflict in Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia, ignored the advice of Biden and decided to instead provide a much smaller amount of nonlethal aid to Ukraine’s military.
Republicans in Congress were scathing about Obama’s refusal to provide weapons to Ukraine’s military at the time. A year later, however, when a delegate to the Republican National Convention’s platform committee, a Ted Cruz supporter named Diana Denman, submitted language calling for the next president to commit to “providing lethal defensive weapons,” she was shocked that the plank was removed by Trump staffers.
Although both Trump and Manafort denied at the time that they had directed the commitment to Ukraine to be watered down, J.D. Gordon, a national security adviser to the Trump campaign later admitted that he had pushed to have the promise of lethal aid removed to better align with the Republican nominee’s aim for warmer relations with Russia.
“The Trump campaign was, for the most part, hands off except one strange issue, and that was Ukraine,” Randall Dunning, an alternate Ted Cruz delegate from Texas told Voice of America in July 2016. “I don’t understand why, with all the tough defense talk coming out of Mr. Trump, why he would object to giving Ukraine the arms necessary to defend their nation.”
Seven months into Trump’s term, when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Kyiv in August 2017, he said that he supported sending weapons to Ukraine, but a Pentagon proposal to provide Javelin anti-tank missiles had still not been approved by Trump.
It was not until March 2018 that the Pentagon announced the final approval for the sale of 210 Javelins and 35 launching units to Ukraine. A month later, the New York Times reported that a Ukrainian special prosecutor appointed to pursue corruption in the former administration, Serhiy Horbatyuk, had been ordered to freeze four investigations related to Manafort’s consulting for the former president of Ukraine and his political party. The cases were not officially closed, but the prosecutor general’s office issued an order that blocked Horbatyuk from issuing subpoenas for evidence or interviewing witnesses.
Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko announced on April 30 that the Ukrainian Army had finally received “the long-awaited” missiles.
Two days later, Andrew Kramer of the Times reported that David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy in the prosecutor general’s office, “did not believe that the general prosecutor had coordinated with anybody in the United States on the decision to suspend the investigations in Ukraine, or that there had been a quid pro quo for the missile sale.”