Inside The Counternarratives Fueling Trump’s Global Pressure Campaign

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27:  U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House June 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump congratulated Prime Minister Varadkar to become the new leader of Ireland.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House June 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump co... WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House June 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump congratulated Prime Minister Varadkar to become the new leader of Ireland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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October 3, 2019 2:59 pm
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President Trump and his associates are trying to substantiate a litany of conspiracy theories with the might of U.S. foreign policy state at their back.

But what exactly are they alleging?

Here we take apart each of the key conspiracy theories that appear to be the focus of Trump’s interest. Each appears intended to discredit an aspect of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

It’s an unprecedented abuse of power, with President Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General Bill Barr invoking the power of the U.S. government to advance the President’s narrow partisan political interests.

Whether it’s an example of inmates running the asylum or a carefully coordinated attempt to misinform, the effort appears to be ongoing, even as House Democrats move to impeach Trump over the Ukraine-focused component of the pressure campaign.

Manafort, Larry King, and the mysterious black ledger

It’s an event now buried under heaps of other scandals, but when it happened in August 2016, the resignation of Paul Manafort as chairman of the Trump campaign was seen as a big blow to Trump’s presidential bid.

But for Trump and some of his backers, it was rubbing salt in a wound. They appear to continue to believe that the Ukrainian financial records which spurred Manafort’s departure were part of a collusion attempt between the Ukrainian government and the DNC, and may have been fabricated.

The document that led to Manafort’s resignation is known in Ukraine as the “black ledger,” and purports to show the accounting for a series of bribes paid by the Ukrainian political party Manafort was consulting for between 2011 and 2012.

The ledger showed $12.7 million in alleged bribe payments with Manafort’s name next to them.

The documents also revealed other oddities. It showed that TV host Larry King, for example, had $225,000 earmarked to be sent to him for a 2011 interview he did with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov:

The black ledger itself has no clear origin. It appeared on the doorstep of a former Ukrainian security service chief, who then gave it to anti-corruption investigators.

The anti-corruption body then released portions of the document in summer 2016.

The timing of the ledger’s release led Trump supporters to believe that it was politically motivated, and given them ample impetus to try to discredit the allegations.

It’s also led them to conflate the black ledger — which forced Manafort’s resignation — with the financial misdeeds for which Robert Mueller prosecuted him. Those crimes related to roughly $90 million that Manafort moved from Ukraine into the U.S. via a series of complicated transactions.

Giuliani is reportedly involved in the effort to discredit the ledger, and has been consulting with Manafort’s legal team to support the theory of Ukrainian-DNC collusion. He’s been in touch with Manafort’s legal team since at least last year.

Giuliani’s efforts have also involved meetings with Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat at his country’s embassy in Washington, who has claimed that DNC officials tried to work with Kyiv to take down Manafort.

Telizhenko told TPM that he was “open to talk to Senate and Congress or any U.S. Gov agency and open for cooperation if needed.”

In which the CIA allegedly tried to entrap a coffee boy

Though some may have been mystified by news the Trump administration was targeting Italy and Australia in its quest for anti-Mueller probe information, anyone who follows George Papadopoulos’ Twitter account could have guessed what Trump’s allies were up to.

Papadopoulos — who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia-related communications in 2016 — has claimed since he finished his two-week prison sentence that he was actually the victim of a western intelligence entrapment scheme.

The two key figures in Papadopoulos’ wild-eyed allegations are the mysterious Maltese professor Joseph Misfud and the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer.

According to Mueller’s report and Papadopoulos’ own plea documents, Papadopoulos first met Mifsud in Rome in the spring of 2016. After Papadopoulos was named a Trump campaign advisor, Mifsud told him that the Russians had “thousands” of Hillary Clinton’s of emails. Over the course of several months of communications, Mifsud, who told Papadopoulos he had links to the Russian government, connected Papadopoulos to other Russian figures who tried to facilitate a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russia leaders.

Papadopoulos then bragged to Downer over May 2016 drinks in London about the dirt he had been promised on Clinton.

The Australian government turned this information over to U.S. investigators later that summer, prompting the launch of the Russian probe.

Papadopoulos now claims that Mifsud — who disappeared once the Papadopoulos case became public — was in fact a false flag planted by western intelligence in cooperation with a Trump-hating U.S. Deep State. Trump’s allies in Congress have also floated the idea that he was in fact connected to the FBI or CIA, while Giuliani has claimed that he was part of Italian or Maltese Intelligence. A man claiming to be Mifsud’s lawyer, who wrote a book called “The Faking of Russia-Gate: The Papadopoulos Case,” told the Washington Post that Mifsud was a “Western intelligence element to be protected.”

Papadopoulos has also claimed Downer was in on the scheme, alleging that Downer was a “a wannabe spy and Clinton errand boy.” (Nevermind that Downer is a longtime conservative who at one point led Australia’s conservative party).

A third figure involved in the early stages of the Russia probe also plays a role in Papadopoulos’ conspiracy theories: Stefan Halper, who served as an FBI informant and got in contact with Trump advisor Sam Clovis when the investigation was just getting started.

Papadopoulos has touted a photo of Downer and Halper together that he claims shows that this was all a Deep State scheme.

His allegations are puzzling on several different levels. At the most basic: if the FBI was entrapping and spying on Trump campaign advisors as part of a plot against Trump, why would it keep it all a secret when the revelation of such an investigation in 2016 would have likely sunk Trump’s candidacy?

More specifically, the lawyer who was representing Papadopoulos through his plea and sentencing denied the very allegations Papadopoulos now advances. (Papadopoulos replaced this lawyer with a new set of attorneys after he was sentenced who tried unsuccessfully to delay his imprisonment.)

Nonetheless digging up dirt on Mifsud and Downer appears to be a major goal of Attorney General Bill Barr’s. He was in Italy this past week, and getting information on the professor was reportedly one of his objectives. Trump himself asked Australia’s prime minister to assist with the DOJ probe, the New York Times reported this week.

Crowdstrike

This is arguably the counter-narrative the furthest divorced from reality, a combination of delusion, disinformation, and right-wingers free associating online.

Crowdstrike is the cybersecurity firm that the DNC hired to defend against — and investigate — Russian hacking.

It has become the focus of right-wing conspiracies that absolve the Russian government of responsibility for hacking the DNC during the 2016 election, and instead suggest that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was responsible.

The firm supplied the FBI with an image of the DNC servers that were hacked, as well as its own analysis of the hack.

Conspiracists posit that the DNC actually hired Crowdstrike to give the FBI a false version of its servers, one that blamed Russia while obscuring the actual culprit: Seth Rich.

There’s no evidence to back this up, and the Seth Rich accusations are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against Fox News.

But the notion that Crowdstrike was part of a cover-up that blamed Russia has stuck in the fever swamps. Online commentators have gone on to link the company’s founder — Moscow-born Dmitri Alperovitch — with Ukraine via his position as a fellow at a think tank on whose board a Ukrainian oligarch sits.

That appears to be the connection that led Trump to say in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…”

The President added: “I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

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