Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
A senior budget official learned on June 19 that President Donald Trump had inquired about U.S. military aid to Ukraine after seeing a media report, according to his newly released testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. And in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity that same night, the president linked Ukraine to a conspiracy theory involving the Democratic National Committee’s hacked server, demonstrating his state of mind about the country at that time.
Mark Sandy, a career official in the Office of Management and Budget, told the House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s abuses of power that on June 19 he was informed by OMB political appointee Michael Duffey that Trump “had seen a media report” and “had questions” about the military aid package to Ukraine.” Sandy did not recall the specific article, but some have speculated it was a June 19 report on U.S. plans to send $250 million in military equipment to Ukraine.
Other testimonies before the inquiry indicate that OMB illegally froze the aid at the president’s order on July 25, that Ukrainian officials inquired about the hold on the aid the same day, and that the package became conditioned on Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky publicly announcing investigations that would benefit Trump politically. The aid was reportedly released only after Trump became aware of a whistleblower complaint about his dealings with Ukraine.
Purported Ukrainian perfidy was apparently at the front of Trump’s mind at the time he became agitated about the aid package. On the night of June 19, Trump called in to Fox for a phone interview with Hannity, a pro-Trump propagandist and sometime adviser whose twisted alternate narratives loom large for the president. At one point during the interview, Hannity suggested U.S. federal law enforcement had “outsourced intelligence gathering” to Italy, the United Kingdom, and Australia during its 2016 investigation of Trump’s associates’ ties to Russia.
As Hannity attempted to move on to another topic, Trump interjected: “And Ukraine, take a look at Ukraine. How come the FBI didn’t take the server, [former Hillary Clinton campaign chair John] Podesta told them to get out. He said, ‘Get out.’ So how come the FBI didn’t take the server from the DNC? Just think about that one, Sean. Think about that one.”
Trump was referencing a nonsensical conspiracy theory which posits that Ukraine — and not Russia — hacked the Democratic National Committee and released its stolen emails during the 2016 election, that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike had fabricated its report that Russia had done the hacking because it has a Ukrainian owner, and that the DNC’s server now resides in Ukraine. In fact, CrowdStrike does not have a Ukrainian owner, the DNC did not have a physical server but a cloud-based one, and Russia stole the emails, according to the U.S. intelligence community.
The CrowdStrike theory has been pushed by Russian intelligence as part of a “yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election,” the New York Times has reported. Trump has promoted the theory in at least two other Fox interviews this year, and he asked Zelensky to investigate it during his now-infamous July 25 call.
Fox’s programming — and Hannity’s show in particular — has played a key role in stoking Trump’s obsessive hatred of Ukraine. As early as summer of 2017, the network’s pro-Trump propagandists assembled scant evidence to claim that Ukraine had interfered with the 2016 presidential election in Hillary Clinton’s favor. And beginning in March 2019, the network became the staging ground for Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s disinformation campaign, designed to protect Trump and damage his political opponents by pushing for Ukrainian investigations. Giuliani would feed information to conservative writer John Solomon, who would promote his columns on Hannity and other Fox broadcasts.
Indeed, also on June 19, Solomon published a column in The Hill suggesting that the so-called “black ledger,” whose publication in 2016 triggered Paul Manafort’s resignation as Trump’s campaign chair, was likely a forgery. (The ledger detailed undisclosed cash payments to Manafort from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party from 2007-2012.) In fact, the FBI has reportedly corroborated the ledger’s claims.
That night, Solomon also went on Hannity’s show to promote his story. Minutes after Solomon’s segment, Trump joined the program to raise his own Ukraine conspiracy theory.