As the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry barrels on, some Republicans in the chamber are boosting a fundamentally nonsensical conspiracy theory about the 2016 elections, one that the President brought up in his call with Ukraine President Zelensky.
On Tuesday, a Justice Department lawyer swatted away a question from a Republican congresswoman about the conspiracy, which focuses on the cybersecurity firm the Democratic Party hired in 2016, CrowdStrike.
“It has been reported that the FBI never obtained the original servers from the Democratic National Committee that had allegedly been hacked by Russia, instead relying on imaged copies,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) told a panel of election security experts during a hearing on election security. “Is that correct?”
Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, volunteered to answer.
“We got the information that we required for our investigation, and it’s pretty common for us to work with a security vendor in connection with an investigation of a computer intrusion,” he said.
The back-and-forth pointed to a well-worn and completely bonkers conspiracy.
Its adherents allege that during its initial investigation of the Russian hack of the Democratic Party’s computer system, Crowdstrike actually manufactured evidence to incriminate Russia — despite the conclusions of both the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation that Russian actors were responsible for the hack.
Some versions of the conspiracy assert that the manufactured evidence also served to cover up the murder of Seth Rich, the DNC staffer whose death became fodder for right-wing conspiracists who claim he was the actual source of leaked Democratic documents.
Trump, on his infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, appears to have asserted that a single server from the DNC hack somehow ended up in Ukraine. Although that section of the White House memorandum of the call is pockmarked with ellipses, Trump is recorded as telling Zelesnky: “The server, they say that Ukraine has it.” He then asks the Ukrainian President to call Attorney General Bill Barr and “get to the bottom of it.”
It’s unclear who told Trump this version of the story, though the theory got its start on the online conspiracy mill 4chan and eventually bubbled into mainstream Republican consciousness. In reality, Crowdstrike did what many cybersecurity companies do when cooperating with federal investigators: It took digital “snapshots” of the hacked DNC servers for its investigations and then handed those snapshots to the FBI. James Comey confirmed as much during congressional testimony in March 2017.
“The images, not the computer’s hardware, provide the evidence,” Crowdstrike said in September.
Much like Trump’s stated belief that Hillary Clinton “acid washed” her emails, the conspiracy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of computers and how they work.
That hasn’t stopped some in the GOP from repeating it as a defense of Trump’s actions, which are now the subject of an impeachment inquiry on which Republican members of Congress could soon vote.
Former Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), in his second day as a paid CNN contributor, got fact-checked in real time after bringing up this conspiracy on-air. In a floor speech last month, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asserted that Trump was simply attempting, in his call with Zelensky, “to get to the bottom of these improper actions which, again, may have emanated in the Ukraine.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), speaking a few minutes before Lesko on Tuesday, defended Trump’s search for the truth.
“The telephone call itself mentioned CrowdStrike — Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — and that was what President Trump was asking that President Zelensky would look into,” he said.