President Trump has fixated on a theory that Ukraine stole Democratic emails in 2016 and framed Russia for the crime. The Washington Post reports that Trump told a former senior White House official that he believed Ukraine stole the emails because “Putin told me.”
The Post’s explosive report adds to an extensive body of evidence showing the degree to which Vladimir Putin has influenced Trump’s thinking. Trump is not a Russian agent, but he is a man whose thinking has obviously been heavily influenced by Russian sources. It is difficult if not impossible to find another Republican official at any level who believes, like Trump, that Montenegro is an aggressive country that might attack Russia or that the Soviets were forced to invade Afghanistan as a defense against terrorist attacks.
The Ukraine-server theory has gained somewhat wider currency in Republican circles, in large part because of Trump. The Mueller investigation found that Paul Manafort — the Trump campaign manager who had previously been hired by a Russian oligarch to help a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Ukraine — had suggested even during the campaign that Ukraine had stolen the emails to blame Russia. Manafort was working at the time alongside Konstantin Kilimnik, whom U.S. intelligence considers a Russian intelligence asset.
The Post reports that Trump’s advisers desperately tried to figure out the source of his belief that Ukraine had stolen the emails. They believed Putin shared this theory during his 2017 meeting in Hamburg and/or at a subsequent meeting in Helsinki, both of which took place without other American officials present. (After the second encounter, Trump confiscated notes from a translator.)
“The strong belief in the White House was that Putin told him,” one former official tells the Post. The paper also reports that “Trump repeatedly told one senior official that the Russian president said Ukraine sought to undermine him.”
Trump’s impeachment has focused primarily on his demand for an investigation of his political rival. But Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine began as an effort to vindicate the conspiracy theory that Putin had apparently persuaded Trump to believe. Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to locate the server the Russians claimed Ukrainians had smuggled away and hid.
More important, Trump allegedly directed the activities of Lev Parnas, a partner of Rudy Giuliani. Parnas was paid a million dollars by a notorious Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. On behalf of Parnas’s company, a Republican donor paid Giuliani, who represented Trump for “free.” And Giuliani, astonishingly, is still at it. After returning from another trip to Ukraine, where he met with a series of notorious Russian-allied figures, Giuliani has made his case on conservative network OANN and met with Trump, who in turn vouched for him and his work.
Proving criminal conspiracies in court is hard — especially when some of the suspects reside in a hostile foreign country, and even more so when the investigation’s principal subject has the power to pardon witnesses who withhold cooperation. The Mueller investigation failed to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia, but Trump is working to spread Russian-originated propaganda and he handed this work off to figures who were paid by Putin allies. Whether you describe this relationship as a conspiracy or simply an alliance, it is very much ongoing.