If you’ve been glancing at news summaries at outlets like CNN and the New York Times, you’ve learned that on Thursday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted that the Trump administration had withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to pressue the country’s government to “investigate Democrats.”
This is, technically, true, and inappropriate on its face. But it’s what President Donald Trump wants Democrats investigated for that makes the quid pro quo so remarkable: He wants Ukraine to find a Democratic “server,” which, he believes, could exonerate Russia of 2016 election interference and reveal criminal behavior by Hillary Clinton.
Parsing out exactly what Trump believes about any given subject based only on the words that come out of his mouth is difficult, but by collating several different comments and some background information gathered by other outlets, we can put together a model.
First, what Mulvaney said:
Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. That’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.
OK, a Democratic National Committee server. Why would Ukraine have something to do with a DNC server? Trump spoke about this earlier in the week at a press availability, explaining why his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had gotten involved in Ukraine policy:
Rudy was one of many people that was incensed at the corruption that took place during that election. Pure corruption. For instance, I still ask the FBI, “Where is the server? How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server. Let’s see what’s on the server.” The server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine. I’d like to see the server. I think it’s very important for this country to see the server. Nobody wants to see it.
From context, we know that this means Trump believes the DNC email “server” that was hacked in 2016 may be in Ukraine. In the White House’s account of Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he explains why that’s so by naming the “company” responsible:
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.
CrowdStrike is the private security company that initially found Russia responsible for the hack, a finding that has been confirmed by U.S. law enforcement. Despite online suggestions to the contrary, the company is not owned by anyone from Ukraine, and the hack investigation reportedly involved 331 servers and computers, not a singular “server.” (CrowdStrike used “imaging” to create a forensically useful copy of the DNC’s setup, a copy that was then shared with the FBI, rather than taking custody of actual machines that were targeted. This is apparently not a suspicious or unusual method of investigating cyberattacks.)
But why would this device—that is, these 331 devices—be hidden in Ukraine? This is where things get even more magical. For one, as Trump alluded to in a 2018 press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he thinks the “server” might show that Russia wasn’t really responsible for hacking the DNC:
I have President Putin. He just said [the culprit in the hack is] 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. … I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server.
But! At a Sept. 25 press conference, Trump said that the portion of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state that she didn’t turn over to the State Department might also be in Ukraine:
REPORTER: Mr. President, do you believe that the emails from Hillary Clinton—do you believe that they’re in Ukraine? Do you think this whole thing originated—
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think they could be. You mean the 30,000 that she deleted?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yeah, I think they could very well—boy, that was a nice question. I like that question. Because, frankly, I think that one of the great crimes committed is Hillary Clinton deleting 33,000 emails after Congress sends her a subpoena.
The record doesn’t show who asked Trump the question, though the conspiratorial use of “originated” suggests it was a writer from a right-wing outlet who sincerely believes that Democrats and Ukrainians fabricated the 2016 hack in order to smear Russia—a theory, popular on the MAGA web, which appears to have been created by a random person on the 4Chan message board. In any case, Trump found the suggestion—that emails deleted off of Clinton’s infamous New York–based personal server during the Obama administration are somehow now duplicated on a device in Ukraine—plausible.
In sum, in the “server,” in combination with the slightly more reality-adjacent but ultimately baseless claim that Joe Biden got a prosecutor fired in Ukraine to help his son, Trump has a MacGuffin that solves all his problems. Over the ocean, in this essentially random Eastern European country, there is proof that both his 2016 opponent and presumed 2020 opponents are crooks, just like everyone said he was—and, perhaps even more importantly, that Russia didn’t help him win the presidency. He did it all himself—Donald Trump did it all himself, even when all the smart and fancy people said he couldn’t. It’s all right there on the server.