It’s only a little over a month since an intelligence community whistleblower turned the Trump administration on its side; it may seem like more. At first, the story seemed straightforward: The informant charged that President Trump had pressured Ukraine’s new president to investigate Joe Biden’s son and blocked U.S. military aid to force the Ukrainian leader to do his bidding.
But the story has become more complicated along the way. Trump wasn’t asking only for an inquiry into the Bidens; he also wanted Ukraine to look for evidence that might exonerate Russia from responsibility for the 2016 cyberattacks against the Democratic Party. He dispatched Atty. Gen. William Barr around the world to seek evidence that the Obama administration’s investigation of his campaign was politically motivated. He said he still wants someone to find the Democratic Party’s “missing” computer server, which isn’t missing, and Hillary Clinton’s lost emails, which no longer exist.
Here’s one mystery in the case: How did poor, embattled Ukraine land in the middle of so many Trumpworld conspiracy theories about what happened in 2016?
Well, Ukraine is next to Russia — and Vladimir Putin has never fully accepted Kyiv’s desire to escape from Moscow’s sphere of influence. Regaining sway there is arguably the Russian president’s No. 1 foreign policy goal.
“I believe that Russians and Ukrainians are actually one people,” Putin told filmmaker Oliver Stone in June. “One nation, in fact…. We have many things in common; we can use this as our competitive advantage during some form of integration.”
Trump does not have a long history of dealing with Ukraine, but he does have a long record of admiration for Putin. In 2014, as he prepared his campaign, the future president praised the Russian’s decision to seize Crimea, which has been part of Ukraine since 1954.
“He’s done an amazing job,” Trump said then. “So smart.”
When he arrived in the White House, the president inherited a policy of sanctions against Putin over the invasion. He didn’t like it; he said it got in the way of better relations. Bipartisan majorities in Congress disagreed.
But Trump never abandoned his preference for Russia. When he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last month, Trump urged the Ukrainian to strike a quick compromise with Putin over eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels have seized a chunk of territory.
Ukrainians noted that Trump didn’t offer to support them as they bargained with their larger, more powerful neighbor. His natural sympathies, it appeared, were still with Putin, not Zelensky.
Meanwhile, the U.S. president has never given up his quest to overturn the intelligence community’s finding that Russia attempted to help him win the 2016 election.
“It all goes back to his obsession with legitimacy,” a former White House official told me last week. “He cannot stand the idea that his election might have been illegitimate.”
That pursuit has enmeshed Ukraine as well, thanks to an alt-right conspiracy theory and a Russian propaganda campaign.
In 2016, immediately after the Democratic National Committee reported that its computers had been hacked, Russia’s semiofficial television outlet RT charged that CrowdStrike, the private firm that analyzed the hack, was owned by an anti-Russian émigré.
Over time, some Trump supporters charged that CrowdStrike was controlled by a Ukrainian billionaire and had even spirited a DNC computer server to Kyiv.
There is no evidence that any of that is true. But the conspiracy theory made its way to Trump, who latched on to it.
After his meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, the president was asked whether he had admonished Russia to stay out of future U.S. elections. His response was odd: “I want to know, where is the server? And what is the server saying?”
Trump’s personal attorney and private investigator, Rudolph W. Giuliani, appears to have fed the president’s suspicion of Ukraine and its new president, Zelensky.
“Ukrainians helped the DNC and Hillary operatives to get, in some cases, false, dirty information about the Trump campaign,” Giuliani said in May. “[Zelensky] is surrounded by people who are enemies of the president.”
About the same time, the New York Times reported, Trump told aides that he didn’t trust Zelensky’s new government.
“They’re terrible people,” he said, according to the newspaper. “They’re all corrupt and they tried to take me down.”
That was the backdrop to Trump’s seemingly odd request to Zelensky to investigate CrowdStrike in their now-famous July 25 telephone call.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” Trump said, according to the White House summary of the conversation. “The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
There’s even more at stake in this scandal than whether Trump used U.S. military aid as a lever for personal political gain and whether the House will consider that grounds for impeachment.
Ukraine’s independence from Moscow is on the line too.
If Trump hands Putin a win in Ukraine, deliberately or inadvertently, the Russian president’s return from his investment in the 2016 U.S. election may well be greater than even he dared to dream.