The theory took root in a vague form long before Donald Trump claimed the White House in 2016. The candidate's close confidant tweeted about it. His campaign president apparently talked to people close to him about it.
What if the idea was that Ukraine – and not Russia – interfered in the 2016 elections?
It doesn't matter that the Russian president has since tightened the thought. In this country, the U.S. secret services are clearly responsible for interfering in this year's presidential election. Or that Trump's handpicked FBI director and other American officials said there is no information to suggest Ukraine's interference. Or that 25 Russians are accused in US courts of hacking into democratic emails and launching a covert social media campaign to influence American public opinion.
The Ukraine theory lives on.
Trump's request to Ukraine to investigate the matter and a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, are at the center of a congressional investigation that resulted in Trump's impeachment by the House of Representatives. One trial against the Senate is the next.
The discredited theory, which GOP allies disseminated online in interviews and tweets, was welcomed by a president who refused to acknowledge the reality of Russia's electoral influence. He wanted to show that he had reason to be suspicious of Ukraine when the United States last withheld crucial military aid last year.
The effect: many Americans blur the facts of the impeachment process before it even starts a process that could start with days.
Experts fear that the strategy will leave the US vulnerable to further disinformation campaigns in the 2020 election, and signal to the Kremlin and other foreign actors that Americans are ready to stick to lies.
A review by The Associated Press shows that Ukraine's conspiracy theory stems from Trump's 2016 campaign, spread online, and was later put forward by Russian President Vladimir Putin after blaming his own country for election problems. Eventually, some of America's self-chosen leaders made it their truth.
"The ultimate victim is democracy, the stability of our nation," said Nina Jankowicz, disinformation expert at the non-partisan Wilson Center, a Washington DC think tank.
The seeds of a conspiracy theory
When the U.S. authorities gathered evidence in 2016 that Russia had hacked and stolen years of internal Democratic National Committee email, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who maintained extensive business contacts in Ukraine and for pro-Russian politicians, pointed out had worked, privately another culprit.
Manafort, who has been in jail for more than seven years for tax fraud and other crimes, suggested that the attack was likely carried out by Ukrainians, the FBI said in an interview with Rick Gates, Manafort's former deputy, in April 2018, Konstantin Kilimnik, a business partner of Manafort who, according to the US authorities, has connections to the Russian secret service, was made aware of this idea – an accusation that Kilimnik has denied.
Trump's advisor Michael Flynn, who later became Trump's first national security advisor, was also determined that Russia could not have carried out the attack and the U.S. intelligence agency could not find out who did it, Gates recalled.
This skepticism was picked up on by Trump himself, who remarkably said during a presidential debate that “It could also be China. It could also be a lot of other people. It could also be someone sitting on his bed weighing 400 pounds, okay? "
Meanwhile, US officials agreed with the findings of a private cyber security firm that Russia was responsible, and over the next few months collected evidence that tied individual Russian military intelligence agents to the attack.
Contributing to the FBI's concern was the disclosure that a Trump campaign official had been told that Russia had harmful information about Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. In July of this year, the Bureau launched an investigation into whether Russia and the Trump campaign are working together to influence Trump's elections. This investigation was finally carried out by the special representative Robert Müller.
TWEETS, ARTICLE FUEL THEORY
When the stolen Democrats' emails were published online and the US was ready to publicly blame the Kremlin for the hack, online allegations surfaced that Ukraine had directly or indirectly interfered in America's presidential campaign.
In September 2016, Roger Stone, a Trump confidante, was later convicted of lying about his efforts to get inside information about the emails. tweeted: "The only interference in the US election is from Hillary's friends in Ukraine."
In his tweet, he highlights an article in the Financial Times that found that some Kiev leaders are determined to "indirectly" intervene in the US election. History has detailed the efforts of Serhiy Leshchenko, a former Ukrainian MP who opposed Trump's offer, to expose Ukrainian pro-Russian party's payments to Manafort.
Leshchenko maintains his efforts that it is not interference or comparison with the Russian attack on the US election.
However, some Republican lawmakers, including some contacted by AP, referred to the article when Ukraine interfered.
"I think Russia and Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election," Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy said on NBC's "Meet the Press" last month. He cited the Financial Times as evidence.
As Trump prepared to take office, news reports fueled doubts about the conclusion that Russia had hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign.
"So how and why are you so sure if you've never requested an examination of the computer servers? What's happening? "Trump tweeted On January 5, 2017, one day after the BuzzFeed News report, the FBI did not examine the Democrats' servers to determine whether Russia had broken into the system.
A Politico report, released a day later, documented a democratic adviser's opposition research in 2016 on Manafort's work in Ukraine – including advice to former leader Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his fall in 2014 – and described the efforts of some Ukrainian Leaders to support Clinton Trump.
The article said Ukraine had not made a top-down effort to urge voters to Clinton. Some Republicans are now referring to reporting to substantiate their allegations of interference.
Citing the reports, conservative and liberal anti-establishment bloggers made misleading connections between Ukraine and CrowdStrike, the cyber security company that attributed the hack to Russia.
This online speculation has shaped Ukraine's conspiracy theory, said Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who has followed disinformation campaigns and election disruptions.
"The landscape made it so easy to find rabbit holes and go down those rabbit holes, stay there, and find a community of like-minded amateurs," said Rid.
It is the nebulous nature of Ukrainian theory that leaves room for direct and indirect interference and gives the idea a changing, evolving form that contributes to its persistence.
An online commentator misleadingly claimed that CrowdSike's co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch was working for a think tank funded by a Ukrainian oligarch. Alperovitch is a grant holder of the Atlantic Council based in the USA and is funded from various sources. Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk's donations accounted for less than 1.6 percent of the group's funds in 2018.
"A lot of misinformation is due to chance or mere contact," said John Herbst, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. "Then they draw outrageous or conspiratorial conclusions from these contacts."
Putin himself weighed a few days after Trump's entry into the White House and publicly claimed that the entire Ukrainian government had favored Clinton during the elections and that it now had to "improve" relations with the new Trump administration.
"As we all know, the Ukrainian government took a unilateral position in favor of a candidate during the US presidential campaign," Putin said at a press conference in February with the Hungarian prime minister.
Russian media used the comments to indicate that Ukraine had actually interfered.
It was convenient for the Kremlin to point a finger at another criminal: just weeks earlier, U.S. intelligence agencies had released a detailed report accusing Russia of interfering in the election with Trump's name. And Ukraine is the perfect scapegoat, experts said. The Kremlin was involved in a 5-year war with Ukraine in which more than 14,000 people were killed.
"It is in Russia's interest to deepen this problem because Ukraine is to be undermined," said disinformation expert Jankowicz.
Until April 2017, the conspiracy theory of Ukraine was advertised by Trump himself.
TRUMP EXAMINES NEW UKRAINE CONSPIRACY THEORY
Trump was sitting at the Oval Office desk, just before his first 100 working days when he mistakenly suggested this in an interview with the Associated Press this CrowdStrike had even stronger ties to Ukraine.
"I heard that it belonged to a very wealthy Ukrainian, I heard that," said Trump. "Why didn't you allow the FBI to examine the server? I mean, there are so many things nobody writes about. It's incredible."
In fact, CrowdStrike is a listed California company founded by two U.S. citizens – George Kurtz and Alperovitch, who was born in Russia and has grown up in America. The company has identified cyber attacks on major U.S. customers, including the U.S. government and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
And the FBI didn't have to physically take the DNC servers with them to confirm CrowdStrike's discovery that Russia was behind the attack, said Eugene H. Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University's Center for Education and Research for Information Security and Security at Purdue University supports the office in cases.
Instead, CrowdStrike captured digital images of the DNC system, capturing files, photos, emails, and browsing history to determine who violated the system. Copies of these pictures were then given to the FBI, the company says.
The process is similar to how investigators take photos at a crime scene that are later examined for clues.
A physical check of the DNC data, a cloud system with at least 140 servers, would have disabled Democrats' computer systems for days or weeks during a presidential election, Spafford noted.
But Trump brought his suspicions regarding the servers directly to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the newly elected Ukrainian president, in the now infamous July 25 phone call that led to Trump's indictment.
"I want you to find out what happened to this whole situation in Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I suspect you have one of your wealthy people …" Trump asked Zelenskiy when he called the White House in September. "The server, they say, Ukraine has it."
Dozens of news agencies have exposed Trump's comments and continue to do so. CrowdStrike was at the center of the call and then published a blog post to reject the president's claims. The President's own national security advisers rejected the theory to no avail, former White House adviser Fiona Hill told investigators of the November impeachment.
"We spent a lot of time trying to refute it in the first year of government," said Hill.
THE THEORY ENDURES
Nevertheless, Trump keeps the thought alive.
He insisted Fox News viewers in November that he had only withheld help from Ukraine to investigate corruption in the country, and reiterated that the DNC's servers were hidden there.
"You know, the FBI has never gotten this server," Trump said. "It's a big part of this whole thing. Why did you give it to a Ukrainian company?"
Portions of Ukrainian election control theory have since been repeated by a growing number of President's Republican allies – some of whom admit that Russia has intervened, but believe Ukraine did.
Days before the President's impeachment, Senator Ted Cruz told NBC's Meet the Press that there was "substantial evidence" that Ukraine had intervened.
His office later said in a statement: “Russia's campaign to interfere in our elections was real and systematic. It is also true that Ukrainian officials did not want the then-candidate Trump to win. The two are not mutually exclusive. "
And when his impeachment proceedings are pending against the Senate, Trump is urging the GOP senators to stand up for the discredited theory. He asks his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to inform them about his trip to Eastern Europe, where he looked for witnesses and documents to support the allegations. Videos documenting his trip were broadcast on Pro Trump's One America News television and viewed online thousands of times.
Hill, a Russia expert, told Congress in November that political leaders who spread such lies about Ukraine only polarized the US and made it a simple target for misinformation campaigns by foreign powers like Russia.
She warned: "These fictions are harmful, even if they are only used for domestic purposes."
Associated press authors Mary Clare Jalonick from Washington and Yuras Karmanau from Kiev contributed to this report.