Anatomy of a conspiracy theory: The ‘server’ Trump keeps looking for will never be found, because it doesn’t exist

2019-10-22 15:10:08

It’s the conspiracy theory that could bring down a presidency: the idea that an old Democratic National Committee email server is hidden somewhere in Ukraine and could rewrite the history of the 2016 election.

If it does lead to President Trump’s impeachment, it will be because he believed it.

“There was a server, the DNC server, that had never went to the FBI — the FBI didn’t take it,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “It was taken by somebody, I guess it’s CrowdStrike, that’s what I have heard.”

Trump pushed the same line last week in the Oval Office, stating, “For instance, I still ask the FBI, ‘Where is the server?’ How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server.”

There is no DNC server. CrowdStrike is a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack into DNC emails and turned its findings over to the FBI. Trump brought up CrowdStrike and the server in a July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the memo about the call released by the White House, Trump said, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” followed by an ellipsis, followed by “The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

Trump and his fellow conspiracy theorists on the right believe that the server would contain evidence proving that Russia wasn’t responsible for the hack. (CrowdStrike found that Russia was responsible, as did special counsel Robert Mueller.) The impeachment inquiry was sparked by a whistleblower complaint about the president’s attempt to pressure Ukraine into pursuing his theory about the server and investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

President Trump searches for a computer server. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)
President Trump searches for a computer server. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, acknowledged last week that military aid to Ukraine was put on hold by the White House as part of the pressure campaign. The administration subsumes the server myth and Biden’s dealings with the Ukrainian government in 2016 under the rubric of “corruption.”

“Did [Trump] also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server?” said Mulvaney in a press briefing last week about his conversations with Ukrainian officials. “Absolutely. No question about that.”

“But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo,” asked a reporter, seeking clarification that Mulvaney had just admitted to the basis of the House’s impeachment inquiry. “It is: Funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.”

“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” said Mulvaney.

Neither CrowdStrike nor Ukraine has the server because the investigation was done through forensic replicas of the DNC hard drives called “imaging,” not looking at a physical server. CrowdStrike is not a Ukrainian-based company — it was co-founded by an American citizen who emigrated from Russia — and people associated with the firm are baffled and infuriated by Trump’s insinuations. Robert Johnston, a former CrowdStrike investigator who worked on the probe into the hacking of the DNC, told the Washington Post that Trump’s comments were “insane.”

“This is absolute babbling to the president of Ukraine,” said Johnston. “It’s hard to finger exactly which conspiracy theory he’s subscribing to. But none of them have any grounding in reality.”

“As we’ve repeatedly stated, we stand by the findings and analysis of our investigation, and, as detailed in our company statement, we’ve provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI as requested,” said CrowdStrike in a statement. “Additionally, our findings have been supported by the U.S. intelligence community and other cybersecurity companies.”

Trump wasn’t the only one pushing the theory on cable news this week. Former Rep. Sean Duffy began his job as a political commentator on CNN by advancing the same story. Duffy, a Republican, previously represented a district in Wisconsin but resigned last month, citing family health issues.

“Democrats and the media were all about what happened in the 2016 election,” Duffy said on the network Sunday. “What Mick Mulvaney said was Donald Trump said let’s look and say let’s get this server, this is the DNC server.”

“This is a disputed, absurd conspiracy theory that you’re talking about right now,” said Amanda Carpenter, a conservative panelist.

“What you are stating is completely inaccurate and factually wrong,” said Jen Psaki, a former Obama White House staffer. “It is a conspiracy theory on the right wing.”

Former Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)
Former Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Duffy, undeterred, tried the same line on Monday when asked by host Alisyn Camerota about Mulvaney admitting to a quid pro quo between the U.S. and Ukraine.

“We spent two years talking about Russia collusion, Russia influence in our 2016 election,” said Duffy. “What Mick Mulvaney was talking about was actually trying to find the server that was the DNC’s server at the heart of the Russia investigation.”

“That’s a conspiracy theory,” said Camerota.

They continued going back and forth before an exasperated Camerota said, “Ukraine doesn’t have the server, Sean.”

“They might not,” said Duffy. “They might be wrong on that. They might be wrong on whether Ukraine has the server.”

CNN didn’t respond to a question about whether it was concerned that its new hire had pushed a conspiracy theory on his first two days on the job. The network has previously faced criticism over its 2016 hiring of Trump staffer Corey Lewandowski after he left the campaign following allegations he had assaulted a female reporter, although charges were later dropped. In congressional testimony last month, Lewandowski admitted he often lied to the media.

On Tuesday, one of Duffy’s former colleagues raised the issue in a House hearing on election security.

“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,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. “Is that correct?”

One of the witnesses, Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, confirmed CrowdStrike’s account.

“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,” said Hickey.


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