As he pressured Ukraine’s President to produce dirt that would discredit the Mueller investigation, Donald Trump first turned to a hobby horse that has received far less attention than his allegations against Biden: the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.
Asking for a “favor,” according to a memorandum of the July 25 call the White House released Wednesday, Trump told Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike” — then, the transcript includes an ellipsis.
“I guess you have one of your wealthy people,” the record of the call continues, interrupted by another ellipsis, then: “The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Crowdstrike is a sophisticated cybersecurity firm founded in 2011 by George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch. The memo provides only a hint at what Trump was getting at, but it’s clear it touches on a right-wing conspiracy that’s stewed for months just under the surface.
Crowdstrike, the conspiracy goes, provided the FBI with false information incriminating Russian hackers while the DNC refused to hand over the servers themselves. The theory’s proponents accuse Democrats of planting evidence that their servers were hacked during the 2016 election — a breach that, arguably, contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss that November.
This, some right-wingers strenuously assert, gave Democrats cover for the supposed murder of Seth Rich, the former DNC staffer who, conspiracists believe, was the real source of the stolen emails published by Wikileaks. (Rich’s family has repeatedly asked prominent right wingers, including via a pending lawsuit against Fox News, to stop spreading this fake story.)
In reality, Crowdstrike has had a hand investigating a number of high-profile hacking incidents, including the North Korean cyber-intrusion into Sony Pictures. But its work in 2016 for the Democratic National Committee brought the company to front pages worldwide.
It entered the scene in April 2016 after the DNC was hacked, one of several intrusions that ended with Democratic operatives’ stolen emails being published by the thousands online, where they became fodder for news cycles and then-candidate Donald Trump’s stump speeches. In the DNC’s case, the theft also included strategy documents, fundraising data, and opposition research, the Mueller report later confirmed.
The saga culminated on July 22, when Wikileaks published emails stolen from the DNC that tore the party apart and led DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) to resign that position. By July 26, the New York Times first reported that intelligence agencies had told the White House that they had “high confidence” Russia was behind the hacks.
Shortly after the hacks in April, the DNC’s CEO Amy Dacey had heard from her operations chief about unusual activity. She told a DNC lawyer who in turn called Crowdstrike’s president.
In June, in a report on its website, CrowdStrike identified two hacker groups — nicknamed “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” — that it found were working for the Russian government. The Mueller report later confirmed that “Fancy Bear” had hacked the DNC and then assumed the identity Guccifer 2.0 to publicize its stolen documents. In a statement to news outlets after the White House published the Trump-Zelensky transcript, Crowdstrike said it “provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI.”
But to some denizens of right-wing fever swamps — and eventually, high profile GOPers like indicted operative Roger Stone — the firm’s involvement was the starting point for wildly conspiratorial thinking, including the assertion that evidence the firm gave to the FBI was fabricated, just another opportunity for the “deep state” to target Trump.
This is the anonymous 4chan post that kicked off the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory.
The conspiracy theory is basically that Crowdstrike, then a $3 billion digital forensics company, threw their business away to forge evidence against the Russian government. pic.twitter.com/1w2c3CATgq
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 27, 2019
This, in essence, is the seed from which Trump’s comment to Zelensky grew — that, rather than seeking the truth, Crowdstrike was actively working against him.
The theories rely on two broad groups of evidence: First, Crowdstrike provided its evidence, including copies of the hacked servers, to the FBI, but, as a January 2017 Breitbart News article pointed out, the DNC did not provide access to its physical infrastructure. While cybersecurity experts point out that this isn’t unusual, it was still useful to conspiracists: The data point is used to imply the DNC was covering something up in its servers.
Second, conspiracists weaponize information about Crowdstrike itself and use it to emphasize long-held suspicions by Trump and others that the Ukrainian government worked to subvert his campaign in 2016 — thus the part of Trump’s call with Zelensky about a mysterious Ukrainian oligarch and the bizarre supposition that the server is located in Ukraine.
Buzzfeed reported that some in the online far-right have linked Crowdstrike’s Moscow-born, American citizen owner, Dmitri Alperovitch, to Ukraine via his position as a fellow at the Atlantic Council — a D.C. think tank known for its focus on Ukraine. Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk serves on the board of the Atlantic Council, and contributed to the Clinton Foundation, causing the temperatures of right-wing fever swamp creatures to skyrocket.
It’s not clear where Trump got the theory he advanced during his phone call, but he has been propagating versions of it throughout his presidency.
In a 2017 interview with the AP, for example, Trump asked a reporter why John Podesta and Hillary Clinton wouldn’t “allow the FBI to see the server? They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based.”
The reporter asked, “Crowdstrike?”
“That’s why I heard,” Trump replied. “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard.”
Right-wing conspiracy theorists allege that the firm blamed Russia for the hack as part of a DNC-sponsored effort to cover up the murder of Seth Rich, who the cynical and the feverish hold responsible for sending internal DNC documents to Wikileaks. Elements of that theory have been promoted by the Russian government itself.
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) May 19, 2017
Elsewhere, far-right conservative media outpost Breitbart has boosted conspiracy theories around the firm. The website has portrayed Crowdstrike as a very circuitous arm of the Democratic Party. That has continued — on Saturday, Breitbart ran a story purporting to identify “common funding themes” between the whistleblower complaint and Crowdstrike.
Stone — a major proponent of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory — is now facing trial on charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress as part of its investigation into Russian interference in 2016.
The GOP provocateur had moved to produce the Crowdstrike report for his trial. But, in a bizarre twist of fate, the judge in his case denied Stone’s motion minutes after the White House released the Trump-Zelensky phone call.