One conspiracy theory began with articles in far-right and Russian media outlets before spreading to the fever swamp of internet message boards. Another originated with a researcher connected to Steve Bannon and a Ukrainian prosecutor accused of going soft on corruption.
U.S. President Donald Trump launched a campaign to push both evidence-free narratives, culminating in a July telephone call with his Ukrainian counterpart that now sits at the centre of impeachment proceedings.
Mr. Trump has long promoted conspiracy theories – from climate change denial to the lie that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States – and many of his most ardent supporters spend hours online spreading them.
“Presidential power is such that he can hijack institutions to ‘investigate’ his bare, ungrounded conspiracist claims. And he can make policy on that basis,” said Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard professor and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying, a book about Trump-era conspiracy narratives. “It is a devastating development for democracy.”
Now, two such narratives have caused the single largest crisis of his presidency, with Mr. Trump accused of soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election and facing an inquiry that could see him thrown out of office.
The first conspiracy theory Mr. Trump raised with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky concerns CrowdStrike, an American cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the Russian hack of DNC servers in 2016. The conspiracy claims that the company was part of a nefarious plot to frame Moscow for the intrusion.
It appears to have originated in early 2017. A Breitbart story about CrowdStrike in January of that year put the term “Russian hacking” in scare quotes; another in March claimed CrowdStrike’s conclusions had been “debunked.” A Daily Caller piece tried to tenuously connect the company to George Soros, a liberal billionaire who is the frequent target of anti-Semitic vitriol online. A story in Kremlin-controlled Sputnik News, meanwhile, attacked the FBI for using CrowdStrike’s imaging of DNC servers in its hack investigation rather than taking physical possession of the servers itself. And RT, another Russian government outlet, claimed the CIA could have carried out the DNC hack and used malware to blame it on Russia.
These narratives were swiftly amplified online. A March, 2017, thread on the anonymous message board 4Chan claimed that “Russia could not have been the source of leaked Democrat e-mails.” Similar discussions emerged among Trump supporters on Reddit. Some posts linked CrowdStrike to QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory that claims all of Mr. Trump’s enemies are secretly part of an international criminal cabal.
Mr. Trump started pushing the CrowdStrike conspiracy as early as April, 2017.
“They won’t let the FBI see the server … they brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,” Mr. Trump, referring to the DNC and CrowdStrike, told the Associated Press in an interview. “It’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian.”
That October William Binney, a former U.S. intelligence official who claims the CIA framed Russia for the DNC hack, says then-CIA director Mike Pompeo called Mr. Binney in for a briefing on Mr. Trump’s orders. Mr. Binney had outlined his assertions in memos posted online, and appeared on Fox News, Mr. Trump’s favourite television channel, to discuss them.
“When I got in there, he said ‘The President said if I wanted to know anything factual on Russiagate, I should talk to you,’” Mr. Binney told The Globe and Mail. The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.
There is no truth to any of these conspiracies. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed how the GRU, a Kremlin spy agency, used spearfishing techniques to break into DNC computers and its mail server. CrowdStrike, which is based in California, is not actually connected to Ukraine.
Some conspiracy theorists have pointed out that CrowdStrike’s Russian-American co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a fellow at the think tank Atlantic Council, which receives money from Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Mr. Trump may have conflated all of this to conclude that CrowdStrike is owned by a Ukrainian.
Viren Swami, a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, said Mr. Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theories are part of a marked shift in how such narratives work. Whereas they once emerged organically from people attempting to make sense of complicated events in online discussions, conspiracy theories now are often deliberately invented or propagated for political purposes.
“You have groups of people or individuals who are actively using conspiracy theories as a mechanism for political mobilization,” he said. “One way to bolster your support is to essentially give them a motivation, give them a reason for supporting you … conspiracy theories in the U.S. now fulfill that function for Trump’s support base. It gives them a motivation, essentially, it casts the other side as inherently evil.”
The second narrative Mr. Trump pushed with Mr. Zelensky was that former vice-president Joe Biden had used his office to help his son’s business interests in Ukraine, including by pressuring the country’s government to fire a prosecutor investigating Hunter Biden’s company.
The story began in part with Secret Empires, a 2018 book by Peter Schweizer that insinuated Kyiv’s decision to drop an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, had something to do with Joe Biden’s work in the country as vice-president. Mr. Schweizer runs the Government Accountability Institute, a Florida research group co-founded by Mr. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist.
In January 2018, Mr. Biden told a Council on Foreign Relations event that he had pressured the Ukrainian government to turf prosecutor-general Viktor Shokin in 2016 for being soft on corruption.
Mr. Shokin linked these two stories, claiming Mr. Biden wanted him gone because Mr. Shokin was investigating Burisma.
There is no evidence for such a claim. At the time of his firing, Mr. Shokin was regarded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as having failed to crack down on corruption. Mr. Shokin was even accused of protecting Burisma rather than investigating it: Britain’s Serious Fraud Office froze some of the company’s assets as part of a potential probe, but had to drop the investigation because Mr. Shokin’s office failed to co-operate.
Still, Mr. Trump and his people hammered away at the Ukrainian conspiracy theories as Joe Biden launched his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other presidential emissaries pressed officials in Kyiv through back channels to open investigations. Ultimately, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky in the July 25 call to probe Mr. Biden and CrowdStrike. “I would like you to do us a favour,” he said.
Prof. Rosenblum said the President’s conspiratorial talk is unique because he is not trying to connect actual facts into a theory, but rather simply invents or adopts false narratives that suit his purposes. And the President’s purpose is often to undermine the country’s institutions, from intelligence agencies to the opposition Democratic Party.
“[It] is conspiracy without the theory,” she said. “No evidence, no argument, just bare assertion or innuendo.”
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