Trump, Russia and Ukraine: Five presidential conspiracy theories debunked

WASHINGTON – From his earliest days in the White House, President Donald Trump has unleashed a stream of unsupported assertions aimed at undermining one concrete fact: the Russian government conducted a sophisticated influence operation to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favor.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation was a "witch hunt" that resulted in his "complete and total exoneration,” Trump has said. The "deep state" is out to get him. His predecessor, Barack Obama, tapped his phones, and the FBI "spied" on his campaign.

Trump's claims about Ukraine, which have touched off the current impeachment inquiry, can also be traced directly to Russia's 2016 election interference, namely Trump's efforts to finger another culprit – Ukraine – even though his own advisers had warned him that Ukraine played no such role.

"It's not only a conspiracy theory, it is completely debunked," Tom Bossert, Trump's former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, told ABC News in September of the Ukraine meddling allegation.

Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials concluded nearly three years ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin was culpable.

"Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election," states a January 2017 report from the Director of National Intelligence. "Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."

Now, Washington is riding a new wave of allegations and spin, after Monday's release of a highly anticipated report from the Department of Justice's internal watchdog on the origins of the Russia investigation.

Here's a guide to the facts -- and the fictions -- behind some of Trump's Russia-Ukraine assertions now in the news:

Trump's 'spying' theory

Trump has repeatedly accused the FBI of spying on his 2016 presidential campaign. “My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on,” he tweeted in May of this year. “… this was TREASON!”

"They were spying on my campaign," Trump told Fox & Friends in a Nov. 22 interview. "I think this goes to the highest level. I hate to say it, I think it’s a disgrace. They thought I was going to win and they said, 'How can we stop him?'"

What we know

There is no evidence that the FBI spied on Trump’s campaign. The Department of Justice’s internal watchdog, Michael Horowitz, confirmed that the FBI did not place any informants inside the campaign or place any wiretaps on Trump’s phones.

The FBI did investigate whether Trump campaign officials conspired with Russians to sway the outcome of the election. As part of that probe, they sought a court order to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.

The FBI believed that Page was "collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” in an effort to interfere in the presidential election, according to FBI documents released after USA TODAY and other media organizations sued the agency.

More: Trump campaign adviser Carter Page acknowledges meeting with senior Russian officials

Four federal judges separately approved the surveillance requests, each time saying the government had shown “probable cause” that Page was acting as an agent of the Russian government. Page reportedly attracted the FBI's attention as far back as 2013 because of his interactions with Russian intelligence agents.

The IG said the FBI's surveillance applications were riddled with errors and omissions, making it appear that the evidence used to wiretap Page's communications was stronger than was actually the case.

At the same time, the IG concluded that the FBI was legally justified in launching its counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russians to sway the election.

Mueller took over the FBI's investigation in May 2017 and eventually indicted three dozen individuals and entities, including six former Trump associates and campaign aides – all of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury.

Trump's 'witch hunt' theory

The president has repeatedly called the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election a "witch hunt," started under false pretenses by his political enemies. He has relentlessly focused on two FBI employees involved in the Russia probe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who were having an extramarital affair.

"We have a lot of information that a lot of bad things happened," Trump told Fox in the Nov. 22 interview. He said Page and Strzok were intent on taking him down and ensuring that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, won.

"The insurance policy, that was a very big find. Finding that text," Trump said, referring to texts between Page and Strzok.

More: 'I decided to take my power back': Ex-FBI lawyer Lisa Page speaks out on Trump's 'sickening' attacks

What we know

There is no question Page, who served as the FBI's assistant general counsel, and Strzok, who was deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, opposed Trump. In 2017, the Justice Department's inspector general disclosed text messages between the pair labeling Trump's campaign "loathsome" and fretting over his possible election.

In one message, Page wrote: “(Trump's) not ever going to become president, right?”

”No. No he's not. We'll stop it,” Strzok responded.

In another message, Strzok wrote that he wanted to believe Trump would not win "but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk.” He adds: “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40.”

Trump and Republican lawmakers seized on the messages as evidence that FBI officials were politically biased and misused their powers to launch the probe into Trump's campaign.

Page and Strzok, during separate testimony before Congress last year, both said the "insurance policy" reference reflected an internal debate about how quickly the FBI should move forward with the counterintelligence investigation. Page wanted to be cautious so as not to burn a source, and she argued that Trump was unlikely to be elected given polls showing Clinton ahead.

Page argued that "we don’t need to go at a total breakneck speed because so long as he doesn’t become president, there isn’t the same threat to national security, right,” according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony.

"But if he becomes president, that totally changes the game," she recounted. "He's going to immediately start receiving classified briefings. He's going to be exposed to the most sensitive secrets imaginable. And if there is somebody on his team who wittingly or unwittingly is working with the Russians, that is super serious."

Strzok told lawmakers that he took the opposite view, arguing for an aggressive timeline in case Trump won because of the national security implications.

Horowitz concluded that political bias did not affect the FBI's work.

There is no "documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to conduct these operations," the IG's report said.

Horowitz determined that the text messages between Page and Strzok "created an appearance of bias" and "raised serious questions" about the validity of decisions involving the two.

But Horowitz noted that Page did not play a role in the decision to investigate Trump's campaign aides. Although Strzok was involved, "he was not the sole, or even the highest level decision maker," Horowitz' report said.

"Witnesses told us that they did not recall observing during these discussions any instances or indications of improper motivations or political bias on the part of the participants, including Strzok," the IG said.

More: FBI releases FISA records on Carter Page surveillance

Trump's DNC server theory

In their July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate unfounded allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

"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," Trump said to Zelensky.

Trump's statement seems to be based on a fringe theory, spread on right-wing websites and promoted by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, alleging that Ukraine and the Democratic National Committee fabricated a hack to sabotage Trump's 2016 campaign and frame Russia.

What we know

CrowdStrike is a private cybersecurity firm that investigated the breach of the DNC's computers in 2016. The firm concluded that it was the work of hackers connected to Russian intelligence services.

Federal investigators and other analyses have confirmed CrowdStrike's conclusions. Mueller, in his probe of Russian election interference, indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for the hacking scheme, which targeted the DNC and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign as part of the Kremlin's effort to undermine the 2016 election.

That indictment states that the Russians "engaged in a sustained effort'' to penetrate the most sensitive repositories of information held by the Democratic Party.

CrowdStrike said in a statement that it stands by its findings and turned over all its evidence to the FBI. "We’ve provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI as requested," the firm said.

More: Pompeo refuses to say what he and Giuliani talked about in newly disclosed calls

Trump's Ukraine 2016 meddling theory

In a May 23 meeting at the White House, Trump told Kurt Volker, then his special envoy for Ukraine, that the country was full of "terrible people" who "tried to take me down." And in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, he suggested that Ukraine had a role in the 2016 election interference.

"They say a lot of it started with Ukraine," Trump said to Zelensky, after mentioning Mueller's probe.

The notion that Ukraine meddled in the U.S. election is false. While some individual Ukrainian officials expressed support for Clinton and concern about Trump – because of his friendly statements toward Russia, which has attacked Ukraine's sovereignty – there was no orchestrated effort by Ukraine's government to sway the contest.

Just last week, David Hale, a top State Department official, testified that Russia, not Ukraine, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hale agreed it would serve Russia’s interest to push that false narrative about its neighbor.

"Have you seen any intelligence assessment or any open-source reporting that would support the idea that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 election?" Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., asked Hale during the hearing.

"I've seen nothing that's credible along those lines," he responded.

Trump's 'fake dossier' theory

Trump and his GOP allies have also vilified Christopher Steele, an ex-British intelligence officer, and GPS Fusion, the research firm that hired Steele to investigate Trump's ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign.

Steele, who had run the British spy agency's Russia desk for several years, compiled the now-infamous "dossier" that included salacious allegations about Trump. Republicans say the FBI improperly used the unverified dossier to win court approval for its wiretap on Carter Page's communications, arguing that agents failed to disclose that Steele's work was being paid for in part by lawyers for Clinton.

But copies of the wiretap surveillance applications show the FBI did disclose to judges that Steele sought information to "discredit" Trump. And the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump was launched after the FBI learned that another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, boasted to an Australian diplomat that Russia had offered the Trump campaign damaging information about Clinton.

Horowitz's report bolsters Trump's complaints about the FBI's reliance on Steele. He concluded that the FBI omitted negative information about him, including a belief that Steele had previously exercised "poor judgment" and that he did not want Trump to become president.

He also found that the significance of Steele's prior cooperation with U.S. authorities was “overstated.” The FBI didn't corroborate Steele's account of Page's dealings with Russians, but still used it in its preparation of the surveillance applications.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Kristine Phillips and Courtney Subramanian

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump, Russia and Ukraine: Five conspiracy theories debunked