Did Ukraine interfere in the 2016 election? Three questions.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump and his allies have repeatedly suggested Ukraine meddled in the 2016 campaign, as a way of explaining his request for investigations. At least part of what the president alleges has been widely debunked.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill returns from a break to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

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Did Ukraine – as much or more than Russia – interfere in the 2016 U.S. election?

That’s a claim made repeatedly by President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans. They point to a loose narrative of official Ukrainian hostility toward Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Trump has also repeatedly claimed – including in an interview Friday morning on “Fox and Friends” – that the Democratic National Committee’s server is being hidden in Ukraine.

Independent experts say that is unequivocally a conspiracy theory. Extensive evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence has shown that Russia was the key actor in social media meddling and the hacking of Democratic servers in the 2016 campaign.

Witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry hearings have appeared mystified at times when asked about alleged Ukrainian election interference. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services,” Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and Russia expert, testified on Thursday.

Dr. Hill did acknowledge that Ukrainian officials had been publicly critical of Mr. Trump in 2016, a posture she called “ill-advised.” And she agreed Ukrainian officials had tried to “curry favor with the Clinton campaign.”

Still, she said there was “little evidence of a top-down effort by Ukraine.” 

Did Ukraine – as much or more than Russia – interfere in the 2016 U.S. election?

That’s a claim made repeatedly by President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans. They point to a number of stories, circulating in conservative media, that weave a loose narrative of official Ukrainian hostility toward Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly claimed – including in an interview Friday morning on “Fox and Friends” – that a Democratic National Committee server is being hidden in Ukraine. “They have the server, right, from the DNC,” Mr. Trump said.

Independent experts say that is unequivocally a conspiracy theory. According to Mr. Trump’s own former national security adviser Thomas Bossert, it has been “totally debunked.” Extensive evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence has shown that Russia was the key actor in social media meddling and the hacking of Democratic servers in the 2016 campaign.

Witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry hearings have appeared mystified at times when Republicans asked them about various aspects of alleged Ukrainian election interference. “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country, and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and Russia expert, testified on Thursday. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves.”

Dr. Hill did acknowledge that Ukrainian officials had been publicly critical of Mr. Trump in 2016, a posture she called “ill-advised.” And she agreed there was evidence Ukrainian officials had tried to “curry favor with the Clinton campaign,” in part, she said, because they – along with many others – assumed Hillary Clinton would win.

“I think it was unfair for people to already call the election and to make attacks, also, on candidate Trump and on President Trump,” Dr. Hill said. “I don’t believe there should be any interference of any kind in our elections.”

Still, she drew a clear distinction between that and the Russian effort, which was “personally directed” by President Vladimir Putin and involved the country’s military and foreign intelligence services. She said there was “little evidence of a top-down effort by Ukraine” to interfere.

Here are three questions about these claims:

What is CrowdStrike?

During the now-famous July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mr. Trump said to his counterpart, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike ... The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

CrowdStrike is a private cyber defense firm that first detected an intrusion into Democratic National Committee networks in June 2016. It attributed the hack to two groups associated with Russian intelligence services.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies later confirmed this conclusion. The report by special counsel Robert Mueller contains extensive documentation of the Russia connection, revealing that the hackers used Russian-customized malware known as “X-Agent” and “X-Tunnel.”

An unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine developed “X-Agent” malware and was the real culprit behind the DNC hack began circulating on the dark fringes of the internet almost from the moment the intrusion was announced. Some versions pushed by Russian-linked social media accounts referenced a “hidden DNC server” in Ukraine, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Mr. Trump has continued to reference this theory, despite having been informed by many of his own advisers that there is no evidence to support it. He has also said repeatedly, including on Fox this morning, that CrowdStrike is owned by a “very wealthy Ukrainian.” That claim is also false; the company was co-founded by three Americans, one of whom was born in Russia.

Who is Alexandra Chalupa?

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have generally avoided mentioning CrowdStrike. But they have focused on another allegation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election: that the Ukrainian government worked with a Democratic operative in an effort to “sabotage” the Trump campaign, according to an 18-page GOP memo of impeachment talking points. 

Alexandra Chalupa is the Democrat in question. Ms. Chalupa is a Ukrainian-American lawyer who has served as a paid consultant and sometime-employee of the DNC, with a job focused on outreach to ethnic groups. In 2014 she began investigating Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s consulting work in Ukraine and his ties to Russia, trading information with officials at the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S., according to a 2017 Politico article that Republicans have referenced during impeachment hearings.

“Certain Ukrainians did work against candidate Trump, some with the DNC,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said on Thursday. “And if that’s debunked, why is it [House Intelligence chair Adam] Schiff has denied DNC operative Alexandra Chalupa from testifying?”

In the 2017 article, Ms. Chalupa said she had occasionally shared some of her findings about Mr. Manafort with the DNC and the Clinton campaign. More recently, she has downplayed those efforts, saying the Ukrainians provided no documents or other extensive information, and were reluctant to deal with her due to concerns about becoming involved in domestic American politics. There’s no evidence any Democratic Party entity used any of her tips. Mr. Manafort is now serving a seven-year prison sentence on bank and fraud charges brought by special counsel Mueller.

What are the ‘black ledgers?’

At a number of points during the impeaching hearings, Republicans referenced the “black ledgers” – documents listing alleged hidden payments to Mr. Manafort and others, that were published by Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian journalist-turned-politician, in August 2016. 

The ledgers were allegedly discovered at the estate of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who employed Mr. Manafort as a consultant and then fled to Russia in 2014 amidst a popular uprising fueled by charges of corruption. When the payments in the ledgers became public, Mr. Manafort was forced to resign his post as Trump campaign chairman.

Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes and GOP counsel Stephen Castor pointed to the ledgers as an explanation for why Mr. Trump felt the Ukrainians had, in the president’s own words, “tried to take me down.”

In 2018, a Ukrainian court ruled that the publication of the ledgers had violated a law prohibiting prosecutors from releasing information before a trial. The court said the action “resulted in meddling in the electoral process of the United States in 2016.”

Some Republicans have implied that the ledgers’ publication was evidence of an organized anti-Trump effort among Ukrainian elites. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, among others, has charged that the ledgers may even have been forged or doctored.

There’s no known evidence backing that claim. A 2017 AP investigation confirmed that Mr. Manafort’s consulting firm received at least $1.2 million in Ukrainian payments mentioned in the ledger. And federal prosecutors dug up voluminous evidence that Mr. Manafort generated “tens of millions of dollars in income from his Ukraine actions” and concealed that money from U.S. tax authorities, according to an indictment.

“The black ledger – is that seen as credible information?” Mr. Nunes asked David Holmes, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, on Thursday.

Mr. Holmes replied: “Yes.”

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