Donald Trump has spent years attempting to discredit and deny a crucial fact behind his rise to the White House: a campaign ordered by Russia’s president helped put him there. And because 2016 will never, ever end, it appears that the Russian hack will be at the center of the impeachment investigation.
A whistleblower complaint over a call between Trump and the president of Ukraine has spiraled in the last two weeks to draw in some of the president’s closest advisers and a growing number of other countries as several House committees delve into the growing scandal as part of their official impeachment inquiry.
But though the initial focus has been on the president’s efforts to gain political leverage over a potential challenger in the 2020 election, it was Trump’s seemingly bottomless obsession with the “Russia hoax,” as he has called it repeatedly, that started the clock on his current situation.
The president has long been reported to believe that to acknowledge Russia’s role in his election is to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. Even as a candidate, he refused to let the word “Russia” approach him without denying he even really knew where Russia is on a map, despite that not being the case. As more information emerged about the hacks and subsequent leaks of Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign staff emails, he refused to state what had become obvious to anyone paying attention.
“There was a lot of corruption in the 2016 election against us and we want to get to the bottom of it,” Trump told the White House press pool on Monday, defending his actions involving Ukraine. It was almost a throwaway line as he concluded a rant attacking the whistleblower, whose complaint, declassified and released last Thursday, sparked the Democrat-controlled House to finally launch an impeachment inquiry.
It was something Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi avoided in April, when over the many, many objections of the president, special prosecutor Robert Mueller laid out how a Russian campaign of hacking and misinformation aimed to boost Trump and hurt his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The 448-page document came to the same conclusion that the US intelligence community did back in 2017 but it wasn’t enough to change the president’s mind in public — nothing has, even as he reportedly told two top Russian officials he was fine with the hacking. His administration quickly spun the idea that the Mueller report actually exonerates him of any collusion with Russia.
But that wasn’t enough for Trump, who couldn’t leave well enough alone and instead sought to clear his name completely — and potentially punish the people who he felt had wronged him. As the White House has tried to make that case to the American public, Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have spent months devoted to digging up proof that the 2016 election was actually free from Moscow’s influence.
In the course of this pursuit, they’ve attempted, per recent reports, to both discredit Mueller’s report to help exonerate Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair who is currently behind bars for off-the-books work in Ukraine, and drag down former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances at winning the 2020 presidential race.
“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 said in his July 26 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This request came just after Zelensky spoke about being ready to purchase more US weapons to defend itself against Russia, according to the reconstructed transcript the White House released, and a few lines before Trump strongly suggested Ukraine take another look into Biden’s son.
“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,” Trump continued.
BuzzFeed News recently reported how the reference to the US-based cybersecurity company has played on the darker parts of the internet, where the theory that Crowdstrike helped start a hoax to defame Trump originated. Those same places birthed a number of conspiracies that Giuliani has floated in recent years, including a long-debunked one featuring murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich. A more recent example came when Giuliani — sounding a lot like Trump did on Monday — told the New York Times that “he was in touch with people ‘who said that the Ukrainians were the ones who did the hacking,’ then participated in an effort to blame the Russian government and link it to the Trump campaign.”
More crucially, Trump in May ordered Attorney General William Barr to investigate the investigation and dig into the origins of the Russia inquiry. In the course of determining whether the probe was “lawful and appropriate,” Barr was given the ability to “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence" he came across. At the time, Democrats worried about the exposure of secret sources and intelligence-gathering methods for political gain.
On Monday, multiple outlets reported that Barr requested that the president intervene directly with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to gain his assistance in the inquiry. An inquiry that, as you may recall, is working to discredit numerous Justice Department employees, along with the entire US intelligence community. (The contents of that call — like those in the call with Zelensky and several other world leaders — were reportedly also placed in an ultra-secure network usually meant for state secrets.) Barr also reportedly met last week with members of the Italian government, and the British before that, to ask for their aid in the audit, according to the Washington Post. Barr’s actions likely place him even more directly in the crosshairs of House Intelligence Committee investigators.
The White House is again trying to turn this back around on the Democrats. White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley issued a statement on Monday criticizing them for apparently not wanting to figure out what really happened in 2016.
Trump’s desire to find someone — anyone! anything! anywhere! — other than Russia to blame for the emails leaked in 2016 brought us to this point. When the president used his phone call with Zelensky to ask “a favor” that would recruit the Ukrainian president in that cause, Trump was unwittingly providing the missing piece that Pelosi was waiting for before finally launching the impeachment inquiry. It may prove to be a fitting bookend.