Impeachment Trials and Conspiracy Theories: A Match Made in Hell

Does Russia get too much or too little credit in fueling the Ukraine scandal? As with everything these days, it’s too hard to tell.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

On Jan. 3, 2017, weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president, an inconspicuous blog post went live on an obscure and now defunct U.S. website, Washington’s Blog. Titled “Why Crowdstrike’s Russian Hacking Story Fell Apart—Say Hello to Fancy Bear,” the post alleged how it was Ukraine, not Russia, behind the 2016 U.S. election hacks, relying on a raft of rumors, vague accusations, and debunked conspiracy theories. 

The allegations in the blog post could have floated off into obscurity, but instead they had a different fate: They began seeping into the bloodstream of social media, blogs, and news reports on the left and right and then into the mouths of some Republican lawmakers and the president. Eventually, this narrative became a cornerstone of the skulduggery that led to Trump’s impeachment.

The Washington’s Blog post appears to be one, if not the first, mention of a now infamous and debunked conspiracy theory: that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, at Ukraine’s bidding, hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 election and pinned the blame on Russia and that the DNC server was somehow based in Ukraine.

“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,” Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 call that is at the center of the impeachment trial, according to an official White House release. 

There’s no easily defined path to follow that shows how exactly this particular conspiracy theory wound its way from the periphery of the internet into the center of a historic U.S. political scandal, according to 10 experts and U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy for this story. Some experts, including Trump’s former top White House aide on Russia and Eurasia, believe its origins lie in Russia. After all, Russian officials in 2016 began leveling vague accusations at Ukraine for meddling in the U.S. election.

A transcript of a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is displayed during testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 19, 2019.

A transcript of a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is displayed during testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 19, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Beyond that, U.S. intelligence has laid out a massive case demonstrating the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The yearlong investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller found that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election “in sweeping and systematic fashion.” (Several Trump officials were charged with lying to FBI investigators about their contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.)

But other experts and digital sleuths say there’s no evidence (or, at least, unclassified evidence) that shows Russia is the mastermind of the so-called “Ukraine did it” theory. They also caution against overestimating Russia’s hand in this; the hordes of Russia’s trolls may have seized on the Ukraine accusations later in a mad dash of digital opportunism, but the conspiracy itself was firmly homegrown. 

If those questions aren’t easily answered, the murky path of this conspiracy theory still reflects some of the biggest challenges swirling around impeachment: how easily foreign actors can worm their way into Washington’s hyperpartisan politics, how to defend against it, and how to sort out truth from lies. It takes on particular importance during an impeachment investigation surrounded by conspiracy theories and falsehoods pushed by the president’s advisors and sharply opposing narratives put forth by both Democrats and Republicans.

House impeachment managers are expected to wrap up their third day of arguments on Friday before the Senate, and Trump’s defense team will lay out their arguments Saturday through Tuesday. Thus far, despite hours of arguments and impassioned speeches from Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, no Republicans appear to be swayed to vote in favor of impeachment nor Democrats swayed to vote against. Since the impeachment investigation began in September, the president’s allies in Congress have seized on the idea that Kyiv may have sought to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of Hillary Clinton during the House impeachment investigation as justification of his request that Zelensky investigate CrowdStrike.

“Once you understand that Ukrainian officials were cooperating directly with President Trump’s political opponents to undermine his candidacy, it’s easy to understand why the president would want to learn the full truth about these operations and why he would be skeptical of Ukraine,” Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in November during the impeachment hearings.

Nunes, who helped oversee the impeachment investigation, stressed in his remarks that Republicans agreed Russia interfered in the 2016 election but that Ukraine could have, as well. “It is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time. And Republicans believe we should take meddling seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most vocal defenders, conceded that while he accepted the conclusion of U.S. intelligence that Russia, not Ukraine, hacked the DNC, what really mattered was that “the president believes that the Ukraine interfered in our election,” as Graham said Thursday.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s former senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council and a respected Russia scholar, offered a sharp rebuke of this notion during her public testimony, describing it as a fictional narrative that has been “has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

She noted that while the Ukrainian government had sought to curry favor with the Clinton campaign, operating on the assumption that the former secretary of state would win, many countries around the world had similarly “bet on the wrong horse.” Hill noted that this was not comparable to Russian interference efforts, which were directed from the top down by Vladimir Putin and involved Russian intelligence services. 

But as the impeachment investigation escalated last fall, senators and their aides were briefed by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to frame Ukraine for its hacking of the DNC during the 2016 presidential campaign. Russian intelligence officials likely seeded the idea with prominent Russians and Ukrainians, according to the New York Times, which first reported on the briefing. From there, it passed through a network of oligarchs, businessmen, and intermediaries before bubbling up in the United States.

Last November, Republican Sen. John Kennedy also suggested in a Fox News interview that Ukraine was responsible for hacking the DNC. He later walked back the claim, refuted by both Democrats and some Republicans on the committee. But he maintained that “both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.”

“It’s hard to find that line between what is legitimate and weird and what is just totally nutty,” said Bret Schafer, an expert on digital disinformation.

Documents from the Mueller investigation released in November revealed how in the summer of 2016, as the presidential campaign was reaching fever pitch, Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, suggested that Ukraine may have been responsible for hacking the DNC, not Russia. Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates told the FBI during an interview conducted as part of the special counsel investigation that the narrative was also supported by one of Manafort’s business partners, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is alleged in U.S. court filings to be a former Russian intelligence officer with ties to Russian intelligence services. Russian President Vladimir Putin also reportedly influenced Trump’s views on Ukraine during their private bilateral meetings in Finland and Germany, according to unnamed former senior officials in the Washington Post.

Keeping track of the long cast of characters, and the convoluted web of claims and counterclaims, is difficult, even for researchers who do so full time. “It’s hard to find that line between what is legitimate and weird and what is just totally nutty,” said Bret Schafer, an expert on digital disinformation at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “With all the names involved, it’s enormously confusing keeping track of who’s who and where the connections are, and, of course, untangling what is Ukrainian and what is Russian is enormously difficult, even for people who work in this space.”

“I am very sympathetic to the average American reader or viewer who comes away from this not having any clue at all what to believe. … It’s all very messy,” he said.

That’s precisely how other Russian disinformation operations are so effective—not necessarily because of their sophistication but because of their capacity to flood the zone. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014 by a Russian-made Buk missile, it triggered a Russian disinformation campaign unlike any seen before. A spectrum of actors, from the Russian Defense Ministry to the state-owned media, internet trolls, and even Russian arms manufacturers, leapt to action to push out alternate—and sometimes conflicting—theories about the plane’s fate. The purpose being not to convince the world of any one argument but to sow just enough confusion and chaos to muddy the findings of international investigations.

Was the Ukraine-CrowdStrike conspiracy theory the result of a calculated Russian disinformation campaign? Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied in-depth election interference and digital disinformation, is skeptical. He researched information from more than 10 million tweets attributed to the Internet Research Agency, the high-profile Russian troll farm with ties to the Kremlin, and found that fewer than 100 referred to CrowdStrike. He also cautioned against overstating Russian disinformation campaigns, a key fixture in the breathless news cycle of Trump’s Washington over the past three years.

“We’ve overstated the effectiveness of Russian disinformation by an order of magnitude,” he said. 

“We’ve overstated the effectiveness of Russian disinformation by an order of magnitude,” said Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, said the success of Kremlin disinformation campaigns hinged on their ability to exacerbate fissures that already exist in society. “Until we recognize that demonizing our adversaries doesn’t solve anything, but building a more resilient society can, we are unlikely to make progress in fighting disinformation,” said Jankowicz, the author of the forthcoming book How to Lose the Information War.

Jankowicz said that while Russia would have been happy to undermine Ukraine by furthering the conspiracy theory that it was Kyiv that interfered in the 2016 election, she was similarly skeptical that Russia planted the narrative. 

Even as the impeachment trial plays out, new evidence and documents are coming to light about the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy. But when the dust settles, it remains to be seen if a clear picture will emerge on how exactly fringe conspiracy theories wound their way into the halls of power in Washington—particularly as Republicans and Democrats dig their heels in on their own narratives of whether Trump committed impeachable offenses or not. 

“At the end of the rainbow, there’s not going to be some revelation that clears everything up. It’s going to remain messy and tangled,” said Schafer of the German Marshall Fund. “And even if we keep establishing more and more pieces of evidence that leads to what you consider to be a set of provable facts, I don’t think we’re ever going to find the magical email that clears it all up for us.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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