Trump’s pet theory raised by Putin
Aides: President clings to Ukraine role in ’16 election
WASHINGTON — Almost from the moment he took office, President Donald Trump seized on a theory that troubled his senior aides: Ukraine, he told them, had tried to stop him from winning the White House.
After meeting privately in July 2017 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Germany, Trump grew more insistent that Ukraine worked to defeat him, according to multiple former officials familiar with his assertions.
The president’s resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”
Two other former officials said the senior White House official described Trump’s comment to them.
Allegations about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 race have been promoted by an array of figures, including right-wing journalists whose work the president avidly consumes, as well as
Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer. But U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers and their staff members this past fall that Russian security services played a major role in spreading false claims of Ukrainian complicity, said people familiar with the assessments.
The concern among senior White House officials that Putin helped fuel Trump’s theories about Ukraine underscores longstanding fears inside the administration about the Russian president’s ability to influence Trump’s views.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Aides said they have been confounded by the president’s fixation on Ukraine
— a topic he raised when advisers sought to caution him that Russia was likely to try to disrupt future elections.
“He would say: ‘This is ridiculous. Everyone knows I won the election. The greatest election in the world. The Russians didn’t do anything. The Ukrainians tried to do something,’ ” one former official said.
Trump, the official said, offered no proof to support his theory of Ukraine’s involvement.
The claims that Ukraine sought to tilt the 2016 election have taken several forms.
One early version was promoted by Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chairman, who suggested to campaign aides as early as the summer of 2016 that Ukrainians may have been behind a hack of the Democratic National Committee, rather than the Russians, his deputy, Rick Gates, later told federal investigators.
Gates said that Manafort’s theory “parroted a narrative” that was advanced at the time by Konstantin Kilimnik, an employee of Manafort whom the FBI has assessed to have connections to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik, who is believed to be in Moscow, has denied such ties.
Two weeks after Trump took office, Putin floated another claim: that figures in Ukraine had helped boost Democratic nominee Hillary
“As we know, during the election campaign in the U.S., the current Ukrainian authorities took a unilateral position in support of one of the candidates,” Putin said Feb. 2, 2017, at a news conference in Budapest. “Moreover, some oligarchs, probably with the approval of the political leadership, financed this candidate.”
Ukrainian steel magnate Viktor Pinchuk’s foundation donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, but there is no evidence that he contributed money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which would be prohibited under federal law. Pinchuk has also supported Trump: In 2015, he made a $150,000 donation to Trump’s foundation.
Trump added his own twist on the conspiracy theory in April 2017, in his first public allegation about Ukraine’s role.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the president claimed that CrowdStrike, a computer security company the DNC hired to investigate the breach of its email systems, was based in Ukraine and played a role in hiding evidence from the FBI.
CrowdStrike is based in California. Dmitri Alperovitch, the company’s cofounder, is a Russia-born U.S. citizen who is an expert in cybersecurity and national security.
Trump has returned to the false Ukraine-CrowdStrike connection many times, arguing the company had covered up Ukraine’s hacking of the DNC and that it had even spirited the DNC server to Ukraine, former White House officials said.
Most significantly, Trump raised CrowdStrike in the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that led to his impeachment.
“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 said, according to a memorandum the White House released of the call.
Privately, officials tried in vain to convince Trump that CrowdStrike was not a Ukrainian company and that it would be impossible for the server to be located there, a former administration official said.
White House officials fear that Russian leader Vladimir Putin helped fuel President Trump’s theories about Ukraine.