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How almost everyone misses the sheer lunacy of Donald Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theories

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Virtually everyone–Democrats, Republicans, the media–have adopted “investigations” as an easy shorthand for the “deliverable” that Donald Trump sought from the Ukrainian government in exchange for the military aid he had been blocking and a face-to-face with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House. This is problematic because Trump wanted the Ukrainians to pursue two separate lines of investigation, and while one of them was at least somewhat defensible, the other suggests that this president may be dangerously detached from reality. Lumping them together obscures how embarrassingly nutty Trump’s obsession with Ukraine, which lies at the heart of this entire scandal, really is.

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Over the past two weeks, a parade of Trump officials have testified that in this White House, “Burisma”–referring to the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings–meant Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who secured a position on the company’s board during the Obama years. There’s no evidence that Hunter did anything more than trade on his name for a cushy sinecure, as many wealthy, well-connected Washington families do. That may be corrupt in a broad sense but not in a literal one.

More importantly,  the efforts of then-Vice President Joe Biden to pressure Ukraine into firing Viktor Shokin, the country’s former Prosecutor General, which Trump and his defenders paint as a conflict of interest, actually ran contrary to Burisma’s interests–and presumably Hunter Biden’s–because Shokin, widely seen as corrupt, had quashed an investigation into the company’s gas leases.

Trump appears to have taken an interest in Burisma–but not in any other potential corrupt company in Ukraine or anywhere else–around the same time as Joe Biden announced his candidacy. If he actually cared about the underlying issue, his own government has multiple avenues to pursue a legitimate investigation. And as several witnesses testified before Congress over the past two weeks, Trump was mostly interested in Ukraine’s president announcing a probe into the Bidens on American TV. It’s all very transparent, but at least there’s an underlying truth that Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma did create the appearance of a conflict for his father, as House Republicans have been pointing out at every opportunity.

They have not been nearly as eager to discuss the other line of “investigation” that Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue–one that appears to have been an obsession of his dating back to 2017. It is a batshit-crazy conspiracy theory which holds that a Ukrainian oligarch who runs the cyber-security firm Crowdstrike conspired with the Democratic Party to intervene in the 2016 election and then blame Russian intelligence to cover their tracks, and that this oligarch secreted away a DNC server that could blow the whole thing open to Ukraine. According to the theory, he continues to hide it from American authorities. According to Trump, who may be mixing up different fringe conspiracy theories, this server also has Hillary Clinton’s “erased” emails.

It was an “investigation” into this tinfoil hat-quality nonsense that Trump brought up with Zelensky in that fateful July 25 call, and he continues to blather on about it today (literally).

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To be clear, Crowdstrike’s only involvement in the 2016 election was that it was the first to flag the Russian hack into the DNC’s emails. But there never was a physical DNC “server”–they used a cloud-based email system. Crowdstrike was co-founded by Dmitri Alperovitch, who is Trump’s “Ukrainian oligarch.” But Alperovitch is neither Ukrainian nor an oligarch. He’s 39-year-old American businessman who was born in Russia and migrated first to Canada and then to the U.S. with his family as a 14-year-old. Hillary Clinton’s emails were on a different server located in her New York home, and had nothing to do with the DNC hack. While her lawyers reviewed the contents of her server and withheld some personal emails before handing the rest over to the State Department, they weren’t erased. Every element of Trump’s theory of the case is unadulterated nonsense.

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Again, whenever we talk about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to open up “investigations,” we elide the fact that the president* of the United States is trafficking in this kind of rubbish–and that it appears increasingly likely that he actually believes it, which would speak to his judgment and quite possibly to his mental acuity.

And even more disturbingly, as Fiona Hill, the former White House Ukraine expert, testified this week, the entire storyline is one that has been promoted by Russian intelligence. The New York Times confirmed that this week, reporting that Hill’s conclusion is shared by the U.S. intelligence community.

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In a briefing that closely aligned with Dr. Hill’s testimony, American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three American officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Mr. Trump in the Ukraine affair.

The revelations demonstrate Russia’s persistence in trying to sow discord among its adversaries — and show that the Kremlin apparently succeeded, as unfounded claims about Ukrainian interference seeped into Republican talking points. American intelligence agencies believe Moscow is likely to redouble its efforts as the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies. The classified briefing for senators also focused on Russia’s evolving influence tactics, including its growing ability to better disguise operations.


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