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The right-wing conspiracy theories behind Trump and Barr’s outreach to foreign leaders

The Trump administration is embroiled in scandals stretching from Ukraine to Australia. It all stems from beliefs in debunked right-wing conspiracy theories.

Trump and Giuliani together at Bedminster.
Donald Trump met with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at the clubhouse of the Trump National Golf Club November 20, 2016, in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is embroiled in a major scandal that stretches from Ukraine to Australia — all stemming from his belief in long-debunked right-wing conspiracy theories.

Last week, the White House released a readout of a phone call showing the president pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into a “missing” computer server belonging to Democrats that Trump believes is in Ukraine and contains incriminating information about the origins of 2016 election meddling.

The problem is there is no “missing” physical server; there’s no actual reason to suspect Ukraine would have such a server in the first place; and there’s no evidence Ukraine interfered in the 2016 vote at all.

This idea stems from a conspiracy theory that has circulated in right-wing media for several years and has been thoroughly debunked. Yet Trump believes it all the same — enough that he felt the need to rope a foreign leader into investigating it.

But new reporting this week reveals that this is not the only wacky right-wing internet conspiracy theory that Trump has latched on to and tried to enlist foreign help to investigate.

We now know that a collection of these conspiracy theories has driven Trump to reach out to the governments of Australia, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Which brings us to an unsettling conclusion: Trump’s discussions with foreign leaders — a major part of how the US uses its power and conducts foreign policy — are steeped in conspiracy theories and other untruths.

The conspiracy theory about Ukraine

In Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump cryptically asked about a computer server in Ukraine and mentioned the American cybersecurity company CrowdStrike.

“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,” Trump said.

Cell phone held up with CrowdStrike logo on it.
In this photo illustration the CrowdStrike logo is seen displayed on a smartphone.
Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Trump was referring to a debunked conspiracy theory: Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in the 2016 election, and CrowdStrike covered it up. It’s a belief he continues to hold even though his top aides have repeatedly told him the theory had been debunked.

CrowdStrike was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 to look into who hacked into their networks during the election. The firm determined that it was two Russian groups with Kremlin ties.

Case closed, right? Not exactly.

Trump seems to believe — and has often mentioned — that a mysterious DNC server with the “real” information on it has gone missing, and that CrowdStrike (and the FBI) is somehow involved in its disappearance. He brought the issue up during his Helsinki meeting alongside Putin.

“You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server,” the president said during the July 2018 press conference. “Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying?”

But here’s the problem: There is actually no missing physical server associated with the DNC breach to speak of. Instead, the roughly 140 servers — most of them cloud-based — are already out of use.

What’s more, Trump seems to believe CrowdStrike is a Ukrainian company, not an American one. In a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, for example, Trump said CrowdStrike was “Ukraine-based” — even though its headquarters are in California. “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard,” he continued.

That’s incorrect. The company’s co-founder, the Russian-born US citizen Dmitri Alperovitch, is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, which receives funding from Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. But that flimsy connection is a far cry from the firm he started being secretly run by an Eastern European billionaire. (Before coming to Vox I worked at the Atlantic Council and interacted with Alperovitch on a few cybersecurity-related events and projects.)

CrowdStrike denies any wrongdoing in a statement to reporters issued last week: “With regards to our investigation of the DNC hack in 2016, we provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI. As we’ve stated before, we stand by our findings and conclusions that have been fully supported by the US intelligence community.”

It’s still unclear just where Trump got this idea in his head, but it’s ingrained enough that he mentioned it on a call with Ukraine’s president.

Trump thinks Mueller’s Russia probe was an FBI set-up involving Australia and the UK

Trump’s belief in a “deep state” conspiracy that led to the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia also seems to have led him to bring up the topic with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister.

Here’s the reality of what happened: The FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian agents in July 2016. That investigation was opened after Australia’s top diplomat in Britain, Alexander Downer, informed his American counterparts about a conversation he’d had two months earlier with George Papadopoulos, then a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Papadopoulos walking out of his car wearing sunglasses.
Foreign policy advisor to US President Donald Trump’s election campaign, George Papadopoulos, arrives at US District Court for his sentencing in Washington, DC on September 7, 2018.
Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

During a night of heavy drinking in London, Papadopoulos bragged to Downer about his knowledge that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign,” as the New York Times put it in a December 2017 report.

However, Papadopoulos has alleged that Downer, the Australian diplomat in the UK, was spying on him — a belief echoed in many right-wing circles. Many Fox News personalities have pushed the (unproven) idea that the Obama administration sent Downer to keep tabs on the Trump campaign and help Hillary Clinton win the election.

Trump now seems to believe this, too.

Australia, for its part, seems open to working with Washington on Trump’s request. “The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation,” the government said in a Monday statement. “The [prime minister] confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President.”

Trump’s allies believe a meeting in Italy was a set up by Western intelligence

Papadopoulos has claimed he was also spied on by a London-based Maltese professor named Josef Mifsud who was working on behalf of the Democrats.

Here’s why: On April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos heard a bombshell from Mifsud. Mifsud had just returned from meeting with top Russian officials in Moscow, he said, where he’d learned that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton. Papadopoulos later told the FBI that Mifsud specifically said Russia had “thousands of emails.”

The timing of the Papadopoulos-Mifsud meeting is crucial — because there was zero public indication that Russia had hacked top Democrats’ emails at that point. News of the DNC hack wouldn’t become public until June of that year, and the hack of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails wouldn’t leak until October.

(However, Papadopoulos says Mifsud was referring to Hillary Clinton’s own emails, which were never actually leaked, unless you count those she sent to Podesta.)

Mifsud clearly has ties to Italy, as he was found by reporters at the University of Rome shortly after his meeting with the former Trump aide came to light. “I never got any money from the Russians: my conscience is clear,” he told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper in late 2017. “I am not a secret agent.”

That’s not how Mueller sees it. In his report, the special counsel noted that Mifsud “had connections to Russia” and “maintained various Russian contacts,” including ties to someone who worked with the Kremlin-linked hacking group that infiltrated the DNC’s networks.

That hasn’t dissuaded Trump’s allies who allege Mifsud was a British, Italian, or American intelligence plant sent to speak with Papadopoulos.

It’s therefore likely that Attorney General Bill Barr’s recent trip to Italy is at least in part an effort to divine how Mifsud got the meeting with Papadopoulos and if the professor is somehow tied to Italian intelligence.

So far, though, there’s zero evidence to back up that belief.

The UK has long featured in Trump’s anger at the Mueller probe

Barr also reportedly spoke to British officials recently to inquire about the origins of the Mueller probe. There are two probable reasons why.

First, Trump and his allies have tried to muddy the waters about the origins of the Russia investigation by insisting it actually started with the Steele dossier, an unverified opposition research document compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. That document includes numerous claims (most of which are still unverified) about Trump-Russian collusion.

Fox News has helped Trump normalize the lie that the Steele dossier is what really sparked the FBI investigation, and Trump backers have continued to push it on TV and elsewhere. But, again, that is not true: the FBI probe was prompted by the Australian diplomat’s revelations about Papadopolous’s sketchy Russia comments.

It’s therefore likely that Barr reached out to British intelligence officials to find out more about Steele, particularly to see if his dossier was meant as a Democratic-inspired hit job. (Narrator: it wasn’t.)

Second, Trump has promoted a right-wing conspiracy theory that British intelligence helped the Obama administration spy on Trump’s presidential campaign. That conspiracy was promoted by former CIA analyst Larry Johnson, who’s been known to spread false stories before (such as claiming he has a video of former First Lady Michelle Obama using a slur to disparage white people).

The odd thing about this is that both US and British intelligence officials have denied this persistent narrative for years. “As we have previously stated, the allegations that [British intelligence] was asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” reads a UK government statement from April released after Trump’s tweet.

In 2017, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer mentioned the conspiracy during a briefing, only to see the White House backtrack from the claim. Even Fox News, which initially ran with the story, has stopped using that talking point.

It therefore doesn’t seem like there’s much for Barr to actually uncover in the UK. But that clearly hasn’t stopped him from trying.