“I still ask the FBI: Where is the server? How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server. Let’s see what’s on the server. So, the server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine.” (Remarks at the White House, Oct. 16)
“There was a server — the DNC server — that never went to the FBI. The FBI didn’t take it. It was taken by somebody that, I guess, it’s CrowdStrike — that’s what I’ve heard. And 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.” (Interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Oct. 21)
Trump is fixated on the idea that Ukrainians might have hacked the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016 and framed Russia for the cyber intrusion.
It’s a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump’s own advisers have dismissed, flying in the face of detailed assessments from the U.S. intelligence community, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the congressional committees that have investigated Russia’s election interference.
The Internet security firm CrowdStrike, based in California, first investigated the DNC hack in June 2016 and traced it to two groups of hackers that “engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.”
Mueller’s report found that, from April to June 2016, a Russian military intelligence agency called the GRU “compromised more than 30 computers on the DNC network, including the DNC mail server and shared file server.” Russian officials first gained access to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s network, “using the credentials stolen from a DCCC employee who had been successfully spearphished.” Within a week, the Russian officials “gained access to the DNC network via a virtual private network (VPN) connection between the DCCC and DNC networks.”
The Russian officers “stole thousands of documents from the DCCC and DNC networks, including significant amounts of data pertaining to the 2016 U.S. federal elections,” according to the Mueller report, such as “internal strategy documents, fundraising data,” “the DNC’s opposition research into candidate Trump” and apparently “thousands of emails and attachments, which were later released by WikiLeaks in July 2016.”
The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the cyber-intrusion campaign to help Trump win; damage his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton; and shake confidence in U.S. democracy.
Nevertheless, Trump often runs with an alternate-reality version of events, involving Ukraine, CrowdStrike and a DNC server, that has caught fire in some corners of the Internet and among right-wing supporters of the president. As the New York Times reported, Trump at times has gone further than some of the “darkest threads” online:
On 4chan and pro-Trump spaces on Reddit, on websites like ZeroHedge.com and Washington’s Blog, you can find plenty of speculation about evil manipulation by CrowdStrike and secret maneuvers by Ukrainians — often inflamed by Mr. Trump’s own statements.
Until the president’s statements, however, even internet speculation did not attribute CrowdStrike’s ownership to a rich Ukrainian or suggest that the D.N.C. servers were hidden in Ukraine.
As the conspiracy theory goes: A rich Ukrainian owns CrowdStrike, and a DNC server was transported to Ukraine after the 2016 hack, thwarting the FBI from taking possession of it and presumably from establishing conclusively that Russia was behind the intrusion.
But CrowdStrike is a publicly traded American company co-founded by U.S.-born George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch, who was born in Russia, is a U.S. citizen and “has no connection to Ukraine,” as the company said. The DNC server data was copied and submitted to the FBI.
As the Washington Examiner reported: “A tenuous Ukrainian connection is that Alperovitch serves as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, which receives funding from Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire who has donated to the Clinton Foundation. The DNC also had more than 100 servers, not just one.”
The FBI and DNC disagree on whether the FBI requested access to the DNC’s servers. Former FBI director James B. Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau made “multiple requests at different levels” to access the servers, but the DNC said the FBI never requested access. The DNC had CrowdStrike analyze its network and share findings with the FBI, which Comey called an acceptable substitute.
“We have never taken physical possession of any DNC servers,” CrowdStrike said in a blog post. “When cyber investigators respond to an incident, they capture that evidence in a process called ‘imaging.’ It involves making an exact byte-for-byte copy of the hard drives. They do the same for the machine’s memory, capturing evidence that would otherwise be lost at the next reboot, and they monitor and store the traffic passing through the victim’s network. This has been standard procedure in incident response investigations for decades. The images, not the computer’s hardware, provide the evidence.”
Cybersecurity expert Thomas Rid previously told us that “handing over the server” as Trump described could have destroyed evidence.
“What they need to see is how the traffic moves,” said Rid, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. If investigators were surveilling a house, Rid said, they would want to know who goes in and out. The same is true of investigating server traffic, he added. Having the physical object, whether a house or a server, is not nearly as helpful as knowing who goes in and out, Rid said.
Thomas P. Bossert, who served as Trump’s first homeland security adviser, said Sept. 29 that the president has been told the story is “completely debunked.” “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.”
No matter. Trump continues to repeat it, as recently as Oct. 21 on Fox News.
In a July 25 phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into the CrowdStrike-DNC tale. That request is now being examined by House Democrats conducting an impeachment inquiry.
“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,” Trump told Zelensky, according to the rough transcript of the phone call released by the White House. “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.”
“In a nutshell, a whistleblower wrote a false narrative of the conversation. Now they don’t want to talk about the whistleblower because they didn’t think I was going to release the conversation.” (Remarks to reporters, Oct. 28)
We recently gave this claim Four Pinocchios based on a line-by-line analysis of the Aug. 12 complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower, which spurred the House impeachment inquiry.
It will be up to Congress to determine whether Trump has been “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” as the whistleblower alleged. Thus far, with the exception of some minor details, virtually all the specific points of the complaint have held up and been confirmed by additional information, documents and reporting.
For example, the Trump administration’s top diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor, echoed the central allegations in congressional testimony. Taylor, the U.S. charges d’affaires in Ukraine, told lawmakers in closed-door testimony that “the White House had threatened to withdraw much-needed military aid unless Kyiv announced investigations for Trump’s political benefit.”
Let’s recap what the whistleblower alleged: Trump in a phone call asked Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation” into former vice president Joe Biden and his son. (Correct.) Trump raised a conspiracy theory involving CrowdStrike. (Correct.) Trump told Zelensky to “meet or speak” with his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Attorney General William P. Barr. (Correct.) U.S. officials intervened to “lock down” records of the call. (Correct.)
“Nobody thought I was going to release the conversation. I got the approval from Ukraine. Once I released the conversation, this thing all died.” (Remarks to reporters, Oct. 28)
The evidence has grown and become more perilous for Trump after weeks of House investigators collecting witness testimony and records, as The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker reported.
“Over two weeks of closed-door testimony, a clear portrait has emerged of a president personally orchestrating the effort to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 political rival — and marshaling the full resources of the federal bureaucracy to help in that endeavor,” The Post reported.
Trump said the State Department sought authorization from Ukraine to release the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call with Zelensky. “I personally think that sometimes such calls between presidents of independent countries should not be published,” Zelensky told Ukrainian media while in New York last month, after the transcript was released, Reuters reported. “I just thought that they would publish their part.”
Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified to House committees that he believed opening “investigations into Burisma Group — a gas company where Democrat Joe Biden’s son once served on the board — and into alleged 2016 election interference was a condition for a White House meeting between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which also quoted Sondland’s attorney saying that when the ambassador was “asked by a lawmaker whether that arrangement was a quid pro quo, Mr. Sondland cautioned that he wasn’t a lawyer but said he believed the answer was yes.”
That’s a significant change from what Sondland said last month, when he denied in a text message to Taylor that Trump was engaging in a quid pro quo.
Taylor texted Sondland on Sept. 9, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Five hours later, Sondland responded: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
The Post reported that the content of that text message was relayed to Sondland “directly by President Trump in a phone call” and that Sondland had “no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at that moment.”
“Ever since Trump released the rough transcript of the telephone call with Zelensky, the president’s position has been continuously weakened,” The Post’s Dan Balz wrote, noting the whistleblower complaint, the testimony of former Trump administration officials Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill, and Taylor’s testimony, which “adds significantly to the chronology of events, and with the kind of documentation that will be difficult to refute.”
That’s the reality, despite Trump’s constant efforts to portray just the opposite.
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