If you watch a Hannity interview with Trump, it’s not hard to see why the president is happy to participate. On Monday evening, for example, Fox News aired the latest iteration, more than 40 minutes of Hannity carefully setting softballs on tees and then praising Trump’s slugging.
At one point Trump claimed that Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) had fabricated a version of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only to be revealed as a liar once Trump released the rough transcript of the call. This is entirely untrue: Schiff was paraphrasing the call after the rough transcript was already out.
Hannity's response to Trump's false assertion? Nudge the train back on the tracks.
Schiff “made up my conversation, totally — like fiction,” Trump said of the incident. “It was — it was fraudulent. He made it sound — he took that conversation, he made it sound — now he didn’t know about that conversation. So he went up — and he made up a phony conversation, read it to Congress, read it the American people. And I released that, and that was the real conversation. So he then said, ‘Uh, I don’t know…’ "
“It was already out,” Hannity interjected.
“' … it was parody,' " Trump added.
“Yes, it was parody,” Trump said. “So this is a corrupt politician."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Trump's latest iteration of rationalizing the contents of that Zelensky call met with no opposition from his friend Sean.
At the start of the interview, Hannity read through part of the rough transcript of the call. It’s the part that came immediately after Zelensky mentioned potentially purchasing more arms from the United States, aid that had already been blocked by Trump’s administration. In response to that request, here’s what Trump said. (Ellipses are in the original.)
“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.”
When the transcript came out, a substantial translation effort ensued. What, exactly, was Trump talking about? The answer, it seems, is that he had embraced and muddled a conspiracy theory in which the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016 was misattributed to Russia, thanks to bad analysis by a firm called CrowdStrike — a firm that can be connected to Ukraine through only four extremely tenuous steps involving a co-founder’s participation with a group funded in part by money from a wealthy Ukrainian’s foundation.
It’s important to reiterate how baseless Trump’s assertion to Zelensky was. There was no “server” at the DNC as Trump has suggested; its network was cloud-based. While CrowdStrike did an early analysis of the hacking, its attribution was reinforced by a thorough investigation conducted by the federal government. There’s no serious question that Russia hacked the DNC network, and there’s no serious reason to think that the attribution stems from any effort from Ukraine.
In his conversation with Hannity, Trump's claims about Ukraine and the server were — impressively — even less moored in reality.
“We’re looking at the 2016 election, which was a disaster,” Trump told Hannity, lamenting the people who were “destroyed” by the investigation into Russian interference and connections to Trump's campaign.
“There was a server — the DNC server — that never went to the FBI,” Trump said. “The FBI didn’t take it. It was taken by somebody that I guess it's CrowdStrike — that’s what I’ve heard."
If that’s what Trump heard, he heard wrong. CrowdStrike — again, not a Ukrainian company — was given digital images of the devices involved in the hacking, complete replications of the accessed systems. In its analysis, it found evidence of tools typically used by Russian hackers. Those replications were later turned over to the FBI, but, as Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told ABC News last month, the government had already attributed the hacking to Russia by the time the FBI was contacted.
A bit later, Trump went broader in his assertions.
“When you look at what’s going on and then you see all of this horrible stuff,” he added, “and then you hear about Ukraine — and you’ve been hearing about it. I heard Clinton was involved. I heard they got somebody who wrote the fake dossier. Was it out of Ukraine?"
Note first that this is a very different claim than the one Trump made to Zelensky. At this point, he’s insinuating that the infamous dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele may have had origins in Ukraine. It’s a politically useful line to draw, given the instant negative reaction any mention of the Steele dossier generates with his supporters and allies. But the theory undergirding it is an exotic one, centering on an early probe into Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his work for a political party in Ukraine. (It’s a theory embraced by the Hill’s John Solomon, whose name crops up a lot in these stories.)
“All of the things that happened — and I assume that the attorney general — I would like the attorney general to find out what’s going on,” Trump said of his new theory about the dossier. “Because you know what? We’re investigating corruption."
This is itself an important point. During the Russia investigation, it was not uncommon for Russia-the-state to be conflated with people-who-are-Russian. When “the Russians” did something, it was occasionally “a Russian guy” who had done it. That distinction is important in figuring out the culpability of the state, as opposed to an individual.
With that in mind, it's worth asking: Where's the alleged corruption involving Ukraine and CrowdStrike? Or involving the Steele dossier, if that's what we're talking about now? What's the role of state actors that would necessitate halting aid to the state?
Hannity raised a 2017 article suggesting that there were “Ukrainian efforts” to aid Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016.
But that article specifically notes that there was “little evidence of … a top-down effort by Ukraine” to influence the election and, ironically, that “the rampant corruption, factionalism and economic struggles plaguing the country … would render it unable to pull off an ambitious covert interference campaign in another country’s election.”
Hannity, of course, presents it as documenting “chapter and verse” how “they” — Ukraine — worked with Hillary to influence the 2016 election.
After Trump reiterated his false assertions about CrowdStrike and the “server,” he made a revealing comment about his vague request that his unfounded theory be investigated.
“Referring to that, that’s not for an election that’s going into the future, that’s for a past election that was a catastrophe,” Trump said. “And it was a very unfair situation."
Trump is pointedly trying to separate his request about the DNC hacking from the 2020 election, a tacit recognition that there is a legal problem with requesting Zelensky’s aid on elections moving forward. That, of course, was the other request he made to the Ukrainian president: to look into former vice president Joe Biden, a possible 2020 general election opponent of the president’s.
That’s a secondary point. The main point is straightforward: Trump’s assertions about Ukraine’s involvement in 2016 are only generously referred to as tenuous, are rooted in an apparent misunderstanding of what happened and are unmoored to his assertions that he’s only worried about corruption.