The so-called “transcript” of a July 25 phone call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart serves as a poignant reminder of how absurd conspiracy theories—even ones widely and thoroughly debunked for many years—have come to influence daily life in the Oval Office.
The White House released the “transcript”—which is, in reality, a series of compiled notes without independent verification—following the announcement of a House impeachment inquiry on Tuesday. The inquiry was prompted by a controversial whistleblower complaint in which an anonymous intelligence official alleged Trump threatened to withhold $400 million in military and security aid from Ukraine unless the nation opened an investigation into his 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.
But Trump’s discussion with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also contains a number of bizarre references to a computer server and cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the company the Democratic National Committee (DNC) enlisted to investigate the attacks on its servers by Russian hacking groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear in 2016. At one point, Trump even appears to suggest that “the server” itself is being stored in Ukraine.
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump reportedly said on the call to Zelensky. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it.” (The ellipses in the supposed transcript are part of the text released by the White House. It’s unclear whether they indicate a pause in the president’s speech or that text has been removed.)
Since 2017, Trump has repeatedly claimed that there is a “missing” DNC server, as if to imply there’s some sort of cover-up underway. But not only is there no server missing, the attack did not involve just a single “server.” As the Daily Beast reported over a year ago:
The “server” Trump is obsessed with is actually 140 servers, most of them cloud-based, which the DNC was forced to decommission in June 2016 while trying to rid its network of the Russian GRU officers working to help Trump win the election, according to the figures in the DNC’s civil lawsuit against Russia and the Trump campaign.
Being notably inept when it comes to basically all forms of technology, Trump has for years tried to make hay of the fact the DNC didn’t turn over its servers to the FBI. But as any expert in computer forensics knows—and the president has 17 intelligence agencies he could call to ask about this—physical access to the hardware is entirely pointless. Instead, what forensic investigators do and have done basically forever is make exact copies of the hard drives called “images” to inspect. Unplugging a server to physically move it (again, entirely pointless) would only lead to potential data loss in the machine’s memory.
Aside from Trump’s apparent confusion about how cloud computing works, his reference to a “wealthy” Ukrainian likely stems from his own mistaken belief that CrowdStrike is owned by a Ukrainian billionaire. Trump told the Associated Press in June 2017: “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard.” The AP didn’t push back on the claim at the time, but it is inaccurate.
Trump’s confusion likely originates with a series of 2017 news articles that highlighted CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch’s role as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank is funded in part by various government agencies, including the U.S. State Department, but has also received funding from Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. (Alperovitch was himself born in Moscow, but immigrated to the U.S. after the U.S.S.R. collapsed.)
Ironically, the New York Times reported last year that Pinchuk had donated $150,000 to President Trump’s foundation in 2015 in exchange for a 20-minute chat with the would-be president.
CrowdStrike did not respond to a request for comment, but a senior official at the company told Motherboard today, when asked why Trump mentioned the company during the call, “I got nothing.”
What’s remarkable about the Zelensky call is that it appears to show that Trump is not only spreading disinformation about the investigation into Russia hacking in 2016, but that he also seems to believe at least some of what he’s saying. His remarks to Zelensky obviously weren’t tweets crafted to disparage Democrats or fire up his supporters, but are instead part of a private phone conversation that, one assumes, he never intended to make public.
Despite, again, having over dozen intelligence agencies at his disposal (not to mention all of the public reporting on this subject over the past two years) Trump seems to truly believe there’s some missing server floating around in the world somewhere and that CrowdStrike—which is headquartered in California, by the way—is a company controlled by some Ukrainian oligarch whose name he can’t recall, despite having spent actual face-time with the man.
Whatever else these so-called transcripts show, they speak to at least one truth: The president is a big dumb gullible idiot.