Trump’s pet the­ory raised by Putin

Aides: Pres­i­dent clings to Ukraine role in ’16 elec­tion

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Shane Har­ris, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leon­nig

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

Clin­ton.

“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.

YURI GRIPAS/ABACA PRESS

White House of­fi­cials fear that Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin helped fuel Pres­i­dent Trump’s the­o­ries about Ukraine.

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