Editors' note: This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in the Associated Press.
If you're struggling to make sense of Republican President Donald Trump's obsession with Ukraine, the best place to look is inside the mind of a lawyer working for him, Rudy Giuliani. Deep in those soupy depths, you'll find the closest thing to a cohesive explanation for Trump's almost monomaniacal obsession with the conspiracy theory that Democrats who conspired to frame his campaign for collusion themselves colluded with Ukrainian nationals to delegitimize his 2016 presidential win.
Like a number of recent Trumpian narratives, this one too is founded in internet nonsense and defies both fact and Senate Intelligence Committee reports. And now, thanks to congressional testimony from the former special envoy to Ukraine, we can track its beginnings to the former mayor of New York City and the near-constant stream of Spygate fanfiction he’s been spewing online for the last six months.
“Spygate," for those of you just joining us, is the name for a loose collection of unsubstantiated claims and right-wing social media theories that coalesced around a May 23, 2018, Trump tweet touting "one of the biggest political scandals in history." Spygate’s central (false) claim is that the Obama administration embedded a spy in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign for political purposes. Depending on the blog or message board you’re reading, it can include allegations of a “deep state” plot or even a demonic global cabal of left-wing pedophiles. This is the petri dish in which Giuliani has been growing his ongoing investigation.
While Giuliani’s fixation on Ukraine dates back to 2017 and he spent the spring of 2018 using Spygate talking points to discredit the former FBI director Robert Mueller’s probe, he didn’t really start his anti-Ukraine social media campaign until March 22 of this year — the day Mueller submitted his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General Bill Barr. Giuliani most likely resurrected it as a tool to disparage Mueller’s resulting report. This time, he began to focus heavily on a Ukrainian connection.
This is the petri dish in which Giuliani has been growing his ongoing investigation.
“Pay attention to [Dan Bongino] for an analysis of some real collusion between Hillary, Kerry and Biden people colluding with Ukrainian operatives to make money and affect 2016 election,” Giuliani tweeted.
Bongino, a far-right radio host and former secret service agent, made a name for himself as a conservative commentator around Spygate. He wrote a book about the conspiracy in October 2018 and has made it the focus of his website, podcast, and Twitter account. In September 2018, Matt Palumbo, a writer who works with Bongino, created a Spygate “character" chart, which spread across Reddit and 4chan.
About a week after he name-dropped Bongino, Giuliani shared an article on Twitter from Fox News contributor Sara Carter. It was an aggregation of an opinion piece written by the Hill’s John Solomon, which has gone on to shape much of the conservative news coverage — and rattled his now-former colleagues. The Hill piece centered around allegations made by Kostiantyn Kulyk, the deputy head of Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s International Legal Cooperation Department, that claimed Ukrainian law enforcement had evidence that Democrats attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. Kulyk’s allegations, collected in a seven-page dossier, ricocheted across US media and together with lines from interviews by Ukraine’s then–prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, a bedrock of the Spygate conspiracy began to take shape.
Even though Giuliani had waited until shortly before the Mueller report’s release to start beating the Spygate drum publicly, according to notes submitted to Congress by Lutsenko this week, the two had actually already met months before, in January, when Giuliani had asked Lutsenko to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden’s connections to Ukraine.
It's not clear if Lutsenko agreed, although it looks like his efforts to curry favor with Trump’s inner circle may have been part of a larger plan to oust Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine and a vocal anti-corruption critic. The Trump administration recalled Yovanovitch in May. She has agreed to give a deposition to congressional committees on Oct. 11.
Following the public release of Mueller’s report in April, the pace of Giuliani’s Spygate rhetoric spiked. He began tweeting about Ukraine almost daily, attacking the country’s alleged corruption and rumored involvement in the 2016 election on Twitter.
On April 21, Giuliani shared an article written by Jeff Carlson, a financial analyst who writes for hyperpartisan news outlet the Epoch Times, claiming that key people accusing the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia were, themselves, colluding with Ukrainian nationals. Linked to the Falun Gong religious movement, the Epoch Times has aggressively courted Trump, dedicating countless articles in the last year and a half to the Spygate conspiracy theory. On April 27, he tweeted it again, telling his 496,000 followers, “The article below is one of a number showing a possible conspiracy (collusion) between DNC and Clinton operatives and Ukrainian officials to set up members of the Trump campaign.” He concluded the tweet with an all caps declaration: “IGNORING IT SUPPORTS BELIEF OF PRESS CORRUPTION, even among those of us who still have hope for fairness.”
Between March 1 and May 1, Giuliani extended his Spygate theories well beyond Twitter. He appeared on Fox News close to a dozen times in the two-month stretch, slamming the Clintons, attacking Mueller’s report, and demanding a Spygate-inspired counter-investigation into the Russian collusion investigation. His remarks quickly trickled down to the internet, inspiring a social media free-for-all. Giuliani was quite effective at stoking the appetite for Spygate content. There were 4chan watch parties for his TV appearances, massive Spygate Reddit threads, and an explosion of discussion on Facebook.
According to BuzzSumo, a March Spygate "investigation" published in the Epoch Times received 120,000 engagements. A Washington Examiner story from April that aggregated a Fox & Friends clip featuring the former mayor received 364,000 engagements. In May, a Federalist article titled "NYT Confirms Obama Admin Used Multiple Spies Against Trump in 2016" drew over 240,000 engagements. Russian media soon picked up the Spygate narrative as well — Sputnik News, a Russian government–owned broadcast service, even did a “Spygate” explainer.
As Giuliani was pushing specious claims about Ukrainian wrongdoing, a group of businesspeople and Republican donors connected to him and Trump were working to "install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company," Naftogaz, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. A group of Americans — including Energy Secretary Rick Perry — spent March through May trying to install new leadership at Naftogaz in hopes to "steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump" allies. Yovanovitch’s ouster was a key part of that plan, according to the Associated Press.
Giuliani told the AP he played no role in the scheme, but two businessmen who were involved — Ukrainians Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — appear to be Giuliani’s clients, according to a tweet of his in May. Meanwhile, then–special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker was attempting to quell Trump’s anti-Ukraine paranoia — unsuccessfully. Released on Oct. 3, Volker’s testimony draws a thick black line between Giuliani’s edgelord-inspired Spygate blitz and escalating Ukraine-focused outrage in the White House. In his prepared remarks, Volker bemoaned the “negative narrative about Ukraine" promulgated by Giuliani and said he worried it would undermine his efforts to convince Trump that Ukraine’s new leadership was committed to helping the US.
“After sharing my concerns with the Ukrainian leadership, an advisor to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] asked me to connect him to [Giuliani],” Volker writes. “I did so solely because I understood that the new Ukrainian leadership wanted to convince those, like [Giuliani], who believed such a negative narrative about Ukraine, that times have changed and that, under President Zelensky, Ukraine is worthy of U.S. support.”
The diplomat testified that when he met with the president on May 23, he suggested Trump invite Zelensky to the White House. But Volker said that Trump was “very skeptical” of Zelensky and that the president’s belief that the Ukrainians helped the Democrats frame him for election interference in 2016 couldn’t be shaken when it was reinforced almost daily by Giuliani.
“[Trump] said that Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of ‘terrible people.’ He said they ‘tried to take me down.’ In the course of that conversation, he referenced conversations with Mayor Giuliani,” Volker testified. “He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view.”
“He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view.”
By July, Ukrainian nationals colluding with the DNC was canon in Trump’s inner circle. Volker said in his testimony that he was shocked to discover that Giuliani still wanted Ukrainian officials to investigate conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 US presidential election, even though he acknowledged Lutsenko was “not credible" and was “acting in a self-serving capacity.”
Which brings us to July 25, the day Trump and Zelensky finally spoke on the phone and the president, gorged on months of Giuliani’s Ukraine conspiracism, made the remarks that would fast-track the impeachment inquiry.
“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. 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. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people,” the president said, according to a non-verbatim transcript of the call.
“Yes it is very important for me and everything that you just mentioned earlier. For me as a President, it is very important and we are open for any future cooperation,” Zelensky replied. “We are ready to open a new page on cooperation relations between the United States and Ukraine.”
As the impeachment inquiry zeroes in on just what exactly Trump and his allies have been doing in Ukraine, we're likely to learn more about how Giuliani's Spygate narrative informed it. According to the joint US House committees’ investigation, he’s had meetings in Ukraine dating back to 2017. Last May, Giuliani met with Ukraine’s special anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, and a former Ukrainian diplomat named Andriy Telizhenko — both reportedly Lutsenko allies.
The Trump reelection campaign is currently running a 30-second video ad on Facebook accusing Biden of offering Ukraine $1 billion in aid if the prosecutor investigating a company tied to Mr. Biden’s son were removed from office. The ad has been viewed at least 5 million times. And because Facebook does not fact-check politicians, it has said it will not be removing it.
Meanwhile, Giuliani — who has been invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee (and is expected to defy House Intelligence Committee subpoenas) — continues to spin the Spygate conspiracy theory he’s pushed into our political discourse. On Monday, he appeared on Fox News, once again demanding Biden be investigated. “This Biden stuff, I’ve known it for six months,” he said. “I started this investigation long before he was a candidate. I started it in November of 2018 solely for one single purpose: because I’m [Trump’s] defense lawyer and it exonerates him.”
As he spoke, Giuliani waved a handful of papers at the camera, claiming they were affidavits from Ukrainian officials that would prove there was Democrat collusion. But they weren’t. They were pages printed from Hopelessly Partisan, an obscure right-wing conspiracy theory website.