WASHINGTON — CrowdStrike, Alexandra Chalupa, and a mysterious black ledger.
Throughout the past two weeks of public House impeachment hearings, Republicans used much of their valuable time to ask questions about the same obscure topics as they tried to distract from the allegations against President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine.
“Have you met with or do you know Alexandra Chalupa?” California Representative Devin Nunes asked David Holmes, an official in the US Embassy in Ukraine, on Thursday. Nunes was referring to a former staffer for the Democratic National Committee and a debunked theory that she colluded with Ukrainian officials to turn up political dirt on Trump.
“No,” Holmes replied. Nunes then asked the same question of the day’s other witness, Fiona Hill, a former White House Russia expert, and got the same response.
Nunes and other Republicans seeded the televised House Intelligence Committee hearings over the past two weeks with the language of right-wing conspiracy theories swirling on the Internet. It was part of a broader Republican effort to muddy the case Democrats have sought to present that Trump abused the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Their questions often elicited blank looks from the witnesses, and the queries astounded some observers. Republican strategist Doug Heye said he was surprised to see Republicans so comfortable trafficking in conspiracies.
“There is destructiveness to that,” he said. “We don’t want to resemble the crazy uncle that yells conspiracy theories at Thanksgiving dinner.”
But analysts said the strategy, which played out over and over during the hearings, could be successful in a polarized and oversaturated media environment in which consumers can choose to follow the news only most favorable to their views.
“It does behoove those that want to see a Trump stay in power that if truth can’t be established to let confusion reign,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.
All it takes is a mention of a conspiracy theory to send viewers to the Internet searching for more information, she said.
“It reminds me of a lot of these young adult books, choose your own adventure,” Donovan said. “Once you pick up a name or phrase that has a key or unique quality to it, you go online to read about it; before long, you are wrapped up into an alternate reality.”
During the hearings, Democrats have sought to show that Trump withheld a meeting with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as nearly $400 million in military aid in an attempt to pressure Zelensky to announce investigations into the Bidens. Republicans have argued that none of the Democrats’ witnesses have direct knowledge of what took place, and they have sought to give credence to Trump’s concerns over corruption in Ukraine by pressing the conspiracy theories.
Leading the charge at the hearings was Nunes, the top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. He has a reputation in his California district for bypassing traditional media, instead limiting his appearances to partisan news shows and using his own podcasts and staff-curated news website to communicate with constituents.
In his opening statements, closing remarks, and cross-examination of witnesses, he and other Republicans often referred to a black ledger, Chalupa, and other names that played into the heart of Republicans’ conspiracy theories: that there was a concerted effort by Ukrainians officials — and not Russia — to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
That debunked theory, often dubbed CrowdStrike after the main security company involved, bolsters Trump’s counter narrative and helps to justify his interest in Ukraine. It was mentioned by the president in his now famous July 25 call with Zelensky.
Trump sought to promote the theory again on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” on Friday.
“They have the server, right, from the DNC, Democratic National Committee,” he said of the FBI. “They gave the server to CrowdStrike or whatever it’s called, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian.”
“Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?” asked one of the show’s hosts, Steve Doocy.
“Well, that’s what the word is,” Trump said.
In fact, intelligence officers have found no evidence of a server in Ukraine or that the country was involved in any way in Russia’s efforts to undermine the US election.
The black ledger is a real document that showed payments to former Trump campaign official Paul Manafort, who has since been convicted of tax and bank fraud. But some Republicans have said the ledger was forged. Holmes testified on Thursday that the ledger was “credible.”
And during her testimony, Hill warned about conspiracy theories alleging that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 elections.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” Hill told the committee. “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”
Experts said the repetition of the false claims could help distract the public from the main allegations of the impeachment inquiry.
“The focus is not on what Ukraine did to undermine the election, which is fictional, it is on what was done to the president in Ukraine,” said Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council think tank.
With the public hearings over for now, the Intelligence Committee will issue a report. Asked whether he was concerned about the conspiracy theories Republicans had raised during the proceedings, one member of the panel, Vermont Representative Peter Welch, said the Democrats would simply try to counter with their own findings.
Indeed, 12 current and former administration officials testified, including Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who detailed what he described as a quid pro quo directed by Trump. Several other administration officials were in the loop, Sondland said.
Democrats said they were galvanized by the testimony at the hearings and unfazed as they tried to counter the GOP’s distractions.
“There’s not a strategy that you can have other than . . . making the best effort possible to convey clearly what it is we found,” Welch said.