Why President Trump asked Ukraine to look into a DNC "server" and CrowdStrike

The consensus view of the CIA, NSA, FBI and a Senate investigation is that Russians interfered in the 2016 election. But those findings don't line up with the ever-evolving story President Trump has been telling about Ukraine.

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Even after the acquittal of the president, his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is pursuing allegations of corruption in Ukraine. This past week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would "carefully scrutinize" what Giuliani finds. Last July, President Trump made the phone call to Ukraine that led to impeachment. He asked the president of Ukraine to investigate a mysterious Democratic National Committee computer server that Mr. Trump said was hidden in Ukraine. We have found that odd request is a story that has grown over the years and was influenced by Moscow. You may have wondered how the president was impeached over Ukraine of all places. The answer is in the story of the mystery server, a reminder that the U.S. and Russia have been on opposite sides of a war in Ukraine since Russia's invasion in 2014.

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Bill Taylor

Few people understand what's at stake as well as Ambassador Bill Taylor. He led the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine as the Trump administration withheld military aid while pressing for investigations of Democrats.

Taylor's testimony carried the weight of his resume; Westpoint, 101st Airborne in Vietnam, 33 years as a diplomat, and an expert on Ukraine.

"Ukraine's security is important to our security and the reason I believe that is that Ukraine is on the frontline," Taylor told correspondent Scott Pelley. "The Russians are fighting a hybrid war against Ukraine, but it's not just about Ukraine, they are fighting a hybrid war against Europe and against the United States."

"The war that the Russians are fighting in Ukraine," Pelley said to Taylor, "We have a stake in?"

"We have a stake in, but it's not just the military war," Taylor said. "Hybrid war is more than tanks and soldiers. Hybrid war is information war, it's cyber war, it's economic war, it's attacks on elections and as we know they have attacked our elections."

The Russian attack on the 2016 election included hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee. U.S. intelligence agencies found, "…the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton…" Former deputy national intelligence officer and CIA Russia analyst, Andrea Kendall-Taylor worked on that report. 

"The report itself was based on a large body of evidence that demonstrated not only what Russia was doing, but also its intent," Kendall-Taylor said. "And it's based on a number of different sources, collected human intelligence, technical intelligence."

Kendall-Taylor said the evidence is convincing and it isn't a close call.

"If you read the intelligence report, it's the consensus view of three intelligence agencies; CIA, NSA and the FBI," Kendall-Taylor said.

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Andrea Kendall-Taylor

The same conclusion was reached by the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee's report on Russia interference was unanimously approved by all of its Democratic and Republican members. Democrat Mark Warner is vice-chairman.

"The Russian project was a top down, government-run covert operation that hacked into the DNC and individuals' personal emails, and weaponized that information to release it at the most important times," Warner said.

But the idea that the Trump campaign was helped by Russia, even unwittingly, was a unanimous judgment Mr. Trump would not accept.

"And by the way folks just in case you're like, curious, no, Russia did not help me OK? Russia? I call it the Russian Hoax," Mr. Trump said at a rally in Alabama in 2017.

Mr. Trump began a campaign to discredit the intelligence community's conclusions. He tweeted, "So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers?" In Mr. Trump's telling, the FBI failed to look for evidence on the Democrats' computer network. The story of the mystery server was born.

Robert Johnston dealt directly with the FBI as an investigator of the DNC hack for CrowdStrike, a leading cyber security company hired by the Democrats. He told us the FBI didn't physically examine the DNC servers because CrowdStrike gave the bureau copies of the data from the servers. 

"If there is a server or a computer system of any kind that's involved in the incident you can take an exact bit for bit digital copy of what's on that system. Now that digital copy is just as good as having the real thing," Johnston said.

"As far as you know, the FBI got what it needed and what it wanted?" Pelley asked Johnston.

"Exactly and evidence of that is you don't hear the FBI complaining," Johnston said.

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Robert Johnston

He's right. A former senior government official, familiar with the investigation, told us the FBI would have preferred to work alongside CrowdStrike's investigators, but the Democratic National Committee decided to give the bureau digital copies of its servers instead. The official told us this was "acceptable," in fact even typical in FBI investigations.

The FBI used the data to help indict 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking the DNC. But Mr. Trump's tweets persisted, "Why did the DNC refuse to turn over its server to the FBI…" and "Where are hidden and smashed DNC servers?" There were more than 140 servers in the Democrats' network, but Mr Trump created an image of a single box of incriminating information.

"Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server? And what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question," Mr Trump said in a press conference while standing alongside President Putin. "My people came to me — Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server."

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President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018. Reuters

That statement, letting Russia off the hook, forced President Trump to issue a retraction the next day. Through all of this, Vladimir Putin wasn't just standing idly by. He was working to shift blame away from Russia.

"What we can see is that Russia did what Russia does, and that is piling on," Kendall-Taylor said. "They amplify those narratives in ways that then advance Russia's own interests."

"They look for conspiracy theories that are already out there?" Pelley asked.

"They're picking up on elements or narratives that already exist in a society and amplifying those narratives that advance Russian interests," Kendall-Taylor said.

The interest of Putin was to drive a wedge between his enemy, Ukraine and Ukraine's most important ally, the United States. 

"A successful, prosperous, Western-oriented Ukraine provides a direct threat to Putin's hold on power," Kendall-Taylor said. "He can't have a successful Ukraine on his southern border, because then it demonstrates to Russians what is possible."

Two weeks after Mr. Trump's inauguration, Putin said, in a news conference, it was not Russia that helped Donald Trump but Ukraine that helped Hillary Clinton. Russian media and U.S. conspiracy websites began to spin suspicion of Ukraine. Ultimately, those rumors appealed to Mr. Trump's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was working to discredit the investigations of Russian meddling in 2016.

"And there were concerns that there was another game being played, another channel that Mr. Giuliani was involved in," Bill Taylor said.

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Bill Taylor and correspondent Scott Pelley

As head of the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, Taylor was frustrated that Giuliani was agitating for investigations that were never official U.S. policy. Taylor said no one at the State Department ever directed him to investigate whether there was a server in Ukraine because, "no one took it seriously."

No one, perhaps, except the president. In 2017, for the first time, he added Ukraine to the story of the server. In an interview he said, "Why wouldn't … Hillary Clinton allow the FBI to see the server? They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based."

"CrowdStrike?" The reporter asked.

"That's what I heard," Mr. Trump said. "I heard it's owned by a very rich Ukrainian..."

The Securities and Exchange Commission, shows that CrowdStrike is incorporated in Delaware and based in California. Its largest shareholders are American venture capital firms. Over the years, CrowdStrike has been hired by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

"So, the server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine," Mr. Trump said during remarks at the White House in October 2019. "I'd like to see the server."

Taylor said that, to his knowledge, there are no links between CrowdStrike and anyone in Ukraine.

"Was this something that the embassy was concerned about?" Pelley asked.

"No," Taylor said.

Pelley asked Johnston if, during the investigation he was leading, CrowdStrike ever sent any of the DNC's computer hardware to Ukraine.

"No," Johnston said. "That-- that is-- that is insane. That is not within the realm of reality."

Last July, reality suffered a final blow. The story Mr. Trump first adopted as a server the FBI was blocked from seeing, and then became the server investigated by a Ukrainian company, finally morphed into the server hidden in Ukraine. In the call, after the Ukrainian president asked for anti-tank missiles to defend himself from Russia, Mr. Trump replied, "I would like you to do us a favor though… they say CrowdStrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it." This was the first favor Mr. Trump asked for even before his request that Ukraine also investigate the son of Vice President Biden. This past November, Mr. Trump spoke, by phone, to "Fox and Friends."
 
"They gave the server to CrowdStrike or whatever it's called which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian and I still want to see that server you know the FBI's never gotten that server," Mr. Trump said. "That's a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company, why?"
 
"Are you sure they did that?" an anchor on the show asked the president. "Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?"
 
Mr. Trump replied, "Well, that's what the word is…"

"The word," that Ukraine was involved, was amplified by the president's defenders in the impeachment inquiry. They pointed to a 2016 opinion article and social media posts, written by Ukrainians, that were critical of Mr. Trump, as though they were equivalent to Russia's covert campaign targeting U.S. computer networks, voting systems and social media. Fiona Hill, Mr. Trump's former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, warned the committee. 

"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," Hill said. "This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."

"What are the chances that this whispering campaign about a Democratic National Committee server in Ukraine is actually a Russian intelligence operation, a Russian disinformation operation?" Pelley asked Taylor.

"The Russians are very good at that," Taylor said. "It's these fake stories that they have propagated. And that's what they do. They do it pretty well. We have to be on guard against that."

From Vladimir Putin's perspective it worked. Last November, as impeachment played out and America's next election season was underway, he said, at a forum, "Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they're accusing Ukraine."

We reached out to the White House multiple times on this story, but they did not respond.

Produced by Maria Gavrilovic and Alex Ortiz. Edited by Joe Schanzer. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"