The problems with Trump’s claims of Ukrainian election interference

One of President Trump’s lines of defense in the impeachment inquiry into his handling of Ukraine policy is the theory that Ukraine had intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly claimed that Ukraine colluded against him. William Brangham talks to Lisa Desjardins for more about this unsubstantiated claim and where it originated.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The impeachment inquiry under way in the U.S. Congress began after President Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.

    But Mr. Trump has repeatedly charged that the real wrongdoing was by Ukrainians. He asserts that they colluded against him in the past.

    William Brangham begins our look at this theory and where it may have originated.

  • William Brangham:

    In that now infamous phone call with Zelensky, President Trump brought up two distinct theories he wanted the young Ukrainian president to investigate.

    The thing we hear most about was the request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens. But the other request was about an unproven allegation that the Ukrainians were somehow working against Trump, that it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who were hiding something about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computer server back in 2016.

    We're going to look at this second issue, why it's not true, where this idea comes from, and how it's now morphed into a much larger accusation about how Ukraine allegedly interfered more broadly in the 2016 election.

    Our guide for all of this is our very own Lisa Desjardins.

    Lisa, welcome.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So much to get through on all of this.

    So, tell us a little bit more about this theory that President Trump has that he brought up with President Zelensky about Ukraine's involvement in the hacking of the DNC.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This resolves around the server that the intelligence community overwhelmingly concluded was hacked by the Russians, the server containing Democratic Party information from the Democratic National Convention.

    And the president, however, has long resented the idea the Russians got involved in his favor. Instead, he's embraced this theory that it was the Ukrainians who were trying to help out Clinton who may have had something to do with this server.

    And, in fact, William, as you pointed out, this is the favor he asked Zelensky for. Let's look at that partial transcript from that call with President Zelensky.

    President Trump said: "I would like you to find out what happened with the whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike, the server, they say Ukraine has it."

    Also, the president brought this up in a press conference or an availability in October.

  • President Donald Trump:

    How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? The server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, now we can explain exactly what he's talking about.

    CrowdStrike is a cybersecurity firm, was hired by the Democrats to look into this hack. It is not owned by any Ukrainians. It is owned by two Americans, including this man. His name is Dmitri Alperovitch. You may have seen him on "NewsHour" talking about cybersecurity in the past.

    Now, while the FBI did not take possession of this DNC server, as the president has noted, neither did CrowdStrike. They don't have it. They don't have any connection to Ukraine. There is zero evidence that Ukraine has anything to do with this server at all.

  • William Brangham:

    OK, so that's the server and CrowdStrike issue.

    The president and his supporters point to other evidence, they say, that shows that the Ukrainian — some Ukrainians, at least — had real animus towards then candidate Trump back in 2016. What's the evidence for that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's look at two things.

    First, Republicans point to this op-ed that was run in 2016 written by the ambassador to the U.S. from Ukraine. That ambassador raised concerns about what then candidate Trump was saying about Crimea. Trump was kind of indicating that he might be OK with Russians taking over Crimea.

    And, here, the ambassador's raising very sharp concerns about that. Republicans say that's an example of bias. Come back to it in a second.

    The second example involves a Democratic National Committee staffer named Alexandra Chalupa. You might have heard that name around. She says, in her off-work time, not as part of her job, she was interested in Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. She had questions about his past in Ukraine. And she spoke with officials at the Ukrainian Embassy.

    She says they didn't give her really much guidance than they would have given anyone else. But there is a Ukrainian Embassy staffer from the time who says it went beyond that. He's offered no proof.

    I think what we take from both of these is that there were individuals certainly who were looking into the Trump campaign or might have had bias, but, in the case of the ambassador, it was a case of national interest. There's no evidence of any larger Ukrainian government effort to try and undermine the Trump campaign.

  • William Brangham:

    So where did this idea come from that Ukraine, more broadly, was trying to interfere?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We may not know all of the actors, but let's start with the press.

    First of all, there was this article from Politico in 2017. Look at that. It says Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump. That's a blaring headline. But, if you dig deeper, really, the only evidence is — there is about that one Democratic staffer.

    And that article itself says there was no deeper effort. They didn't have proof of a top-down effort. That was 2017.

    But then flash forward to earlier this year, and you see in The Hill in March a reporter named John Solomon in a piece that was titled as opinion put out this idea that there was a Ukrainian plot to help Clinton.

    Now, it should be noted that this — in particular, this report, William, now is under investigation by The Hill, as is John Solomon's reporting. The president, though, picked up on it. He tweeted the very next day. He — or that day. He saw that report.

    And you see this idea of starting to take hold. Rudy Giuliani appeared on FOX News a couple months later, also putting out these theories.

    What's happening here? Well, the intelligence community is looking at this. And they have recently, according to The New York Times, concluded that, actually, it was Russia that put out these ideas that Ukraine was behind any election meddling in 2016, certainly something that benefits Russia, that's been in the hot spot for this.

  • William Brangham:

    Push blame off of Russia onto Ukraine.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    And intelligence community in the U.S. has concluded that's what happened, according to The New York Times' reporting. And people might remember Fiona Hill, the former Russia and Ukraine expert on the National Security Council staff.

    This is what she testified to about a week-and-a-half ago in the impeachment hearings.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services didn't conduct a campaign against our country, and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did.

    This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One more note on this. Vladimir Putin himself, last month, said he's paid attention to this, and he sort of joked, in a happy way, that he's glad Ukraine is getting the blame.

  • William Brangham:

    So, despite all of this, the seeming evidence that this might be the Russians who are trying to gin up this idea, we are still seeing some members of the GOP parrot these same talking points.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Let's talk about a couple of Republican senators just this week.

    First, I want to play a sound bite from Louisiana Senator John Kennedy.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election. I think it's been well-documented in The Financial Times, in Politico, in The Economist, and The Washington Examiner, even on CBS.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also, notably, the Senate Intelligence chairman, Richard Burr, who is usually known for being very cautious, told me and a few other reporters this a couple of days ago.

    He said: "There's no difference in the way Russians put their finger early on, on the scale and how the Ukrainian officials did it."

    This kind of saying that these are two equal things is something that blows the mind of many other Republicans. It's a minority who's holding this view. They're obviously supporting the president.

    But look at, for example, someone else, Senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of the president.

    Instead, he said; "I'm 1000 percent confidence that the hack of the Democratic National Committee was by Russian operatives, no one else."

    So, you see a battle for what's true or not, when, really, the evidence is overwhelming on one side that the Russians attacked us in many ways. And there's almost no evidence that the Ukrainians had a government-wide attempt to try and meddle in 2016.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you so much for helping us wade through all of this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Good teamwork. You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment