“That’s the piece of the puzzle I’m here to report today, that unlike the narrative of the press, that President Trump wants to dig up dirt on his 2020 opponent, what he wants is he wants an accounting of what happened in 2016. Who set him up? Did things spring from Ukraine? There’s a good piece we got an Oversight [Committee] letter on from Politico in 2017. Let me quote the article. It says: ‘Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump.’ They did so by disseminating documents ‘implicating a top Trump aide in corruption,’ suggesting they were investigating the matter. Ukrainian officials also reportedly ‘helped Clinton allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers.’ There is potential interference in the 2016 election. That’s what Trump wants to get to the bottom of, but the press doesn’t want to.”

— Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Oct. 6, 2019

Never mind that the rough transcript released by the White House of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows that Trump said, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

Johnson says that what Trump really wanted to find out from Ukrainian officials is what happened in 2016. “Who set him up?” he asked. “Did things spring from Ukraine?”

In the course of the July 25 conversation, Trump did say: “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.” (The ellipses are in the transcript, and it’s unclear if something has been edited out.)

Johnson, in his television interview, did not mention CrowdStrike but quoted from a Politico article from 2017. So what’s going on? Here is an explanation of three theories promoted by Republicans to suggest that Trump was “set up” by Ukraine.

The Facts

First of all, the evidence so far indicates there is nothing that took place in Ukraine that even begins to compare to the Russian intervention in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III documented in great detail a top-down effort, initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to illegally hack and release information in a deliberate attempt to meddle in the presidential election on behalf of Trump.

What we have in Ukraine, so far, is just flotsam and jetsam that does not add up to state-level efforts to change the course of history.

DNC staff member

The Politico article cited by Johnson says a Ukrainian American Democratic operative, Alexandra Chalupa, began looking into Trump campaign official Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych, who served as president from 2010 until his ouster in 2014. Chalupa was hired as a consultant to the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign to help mobilize ethnic communities. She left the DNC in July 2016, the DNC said.

She continued her research into Manafort on her own, sometimes with the help of Ukrainian Embassy officials, and she said she sometimes shared her findings with officials at the DNC and Clinton’s campaign. But former Clinton campaign officials said they never received information from Chalupa.

The exact role of embassy officials is unclear. Chalupa told Politico that officials at the Ukrainian Embassy were helpful in providing “guidance” in response to her questions and that the embassy also worked with reporters researching Trump, Manafort and Russia. A top embassy official denied working with reporters or with Chalupa on issues related to Trump or Manafort, but a former embassy officer said he was instructed to help Chalupa with her research.

DNC officials denied that they coordinated with Chalupa on opposition research. She was not a researcher for the DNC, and the DNC did not incorporate her findings about Manafort, Politico reported. DNC officials told Politico that the Democratic Party had been looking into Trump and his ties to Russia long before Chalupa alerted them.

Chalupa disputed the framing of the Politico story in a Facebook post. “During the 2016 US election, I was a part time consultant for the DNC running an ethnic engagement program,” she said in a lengthy statement to CNN. “I was not an opposition researcher for the DNC, and the DNC never asked me to go to the Ukrainian Embassy to collect information.”

Chalupa may have worked with some embassy officials, but there’s no evidence that the DNC used information gathered by Chalupa or that the Ukrainians coordinated opposition research with the DNC.

The Politico article was published nearly two years ago, and it’s revealing that Johnson still is quoting from it. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to the Justice Department in 2017, and more recently Grassley and Johnson wrote a follow-up letter asking again for an investigation. A Johnson spokesman directed The Fact Checker to a cryptic statement by the Justice Department that a team is evaluating “the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”

Manafort ‘black ledger’

Manafort, briefly, was Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016. In August 2016, a Ukrainian government agency released ledgers that reportedly showed $12.7 million in cash payments from Yanukovych’s party that were earmarked for Manafort. Reports about these payments prompted Manafort to step down from his position in the Trump campaign, though the Mueller report says he continued to provide advice to campaign officials.

Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker and former investigative journalist, and Artem Sytnyk, a director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, publicized these ledgers, which, according to Leshchenko, were found by an anonymous source in the burned-out ruins of the headquarters of Yanukovych’s party.

In December, a Kiev court said the decision to publish the documents amounted to interference in the U.S. presidential election — a conclusion that Leshchenko said was politically motivated and aimed at undermining Sytnyk. In July, the ruling was overturned by an appeals court. “The court concluded that all the charges against me were unfounded, and even obliged my opponents to reimburse me for $100 in legal costs,” Leshchenko wrote in The Washington Post.

“Corruption is harmful whether it takes place in America or Ukraine. My desire to expose Manafort’s doings was motivated by the desire for justice,” Leshchenko wrote. “Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Joe Biden, nor John Podesta, nor George Soros asked me to publish the information from the black ledger. I wanted to obtain accountability for the lobbyist whose client immersed Ukraine in a blood bath during the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, when Yanukovych called on Russia to send troops.” He added: “I have no doubt that Yanukovych paid Manafort for his services out of the funds he robbed from Ukrainian taxpayers.”

Glenn Beck on Oct. 3 promoted an audiotape, purportedly of Sytnyk bragging that he “helped Hillary’s campaign,” that was made public in March by Borislav Rosenblatt, a Ukrainian legislator behind the now-overturned lawsuit claiming election interference. But Rosenblatt had been investigated by Sytnyk’s anti-corruption bureau, suggesting he is not a credible source.

While some Republicans have suggested that the ledger was fake, Manafort’s defense lawyers did not make that argument as they unsuccessfully defended him on charges that included failing to report on his income taxes millions of dollars he had earned working for Yanukovych.

CrowdStrike

This is the strangest claim — that somehow a private company co-founded by a Ukrainian American had a role in starting the “Russian hoax.” It is based on virtually no evidence, yet it emerged from the president’s mouth during a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart. “The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told Zelensky.

Trump has been obsessed with the idea that the FBI never took physical possession of the servers at the DNC that were hacked. (Our database of Trump’s false and misleading claims shows he has brought this up more than 20 times.)

But the FBI felt it was not necessary to enter the DNC’s premises and take custody of the affected servers, as agents were able to obtain complete copies of forensic images made by CrowdStrike, which first identified that the DNC had been hacked by Russian operatives. Former FBI director James B. Comey testified that his staff told him this arrangement was an “appropriate substitute.”

CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a Russia-born cyber and national security expert and a U.S. citizen; he is not Ukrainian. In any case, Mueller’s investigation confirmed CrowdStrike’s findings and even indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers in 2018 for their role in the breach.

Thomas P. Bossert, who served as Trump’s first homeland security adviser, said Sept. 29 that the president has been repeatedly told that the story has been “completely debunked,” yet Trump continues to embrace it. “The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go,” Bossert said on ABC’s “This Week.” “If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down.”

The Bottom Line

The CrowdStrike allegation is crazy stuff, dismissed by even Trump’s own aides. So let’s ignore that.

The story of Chalupa’s work at the DNC has not advanced since 2017, and it’s pretty thin beer, especially when compared with state-ordered hacking by Russia. She may or may not have worked with embassy officials, and the DNC did not use her research. The impact, if any, seems minimal.

The release of the “black ledger” — via a Ukrainian state agency and legislator — did result in Manafort’s removal from the campaign and prompted questions about Trump and Russia. (Trump might have avoided some of these questions if he had done some due diligence and not hired Manafort in the first place, given Manafort’s deep ties to Russian figures.) But the legal ruling in Ukraine that this was election inference has been overturned. And again, people appear to have acted out of individual motivations, not at the behest of the head of state.

We’ll see what, if anything, the Justice Department investigation uncovers. But there’s little to suggest this is a fruitful avenue for inquiry.

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