Almost from the moment he took office, President Trump seized on a theory that troubled his senior aides: Ukraine, he told them on many occasions, had tried to stop him from winning the White House.
After meeting privately in July 2017 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Trump grew more insistent that Ukraine worked to defeat him, according to multiple former officials familiar with his assertions.
The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”
Two other former officials said the senior White House official described Trump’s comment to them.
The Ukraine theory that has consumed Trump’s attention has now been taken up by Republicans in Congress who are defending the president against impeachment. Top GOP lawmakers have demanded investigations of Ukrainian interference for which senior U.S. officials, including the director of the FBI, say there is no evidence.
Allegations about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 race have been promoted by an array of figures, including right-wing journalists whose work the president avidly consumes, as well as Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer. But U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers and their staff members this past fall that Russian security services played a major role in spreading false claims of Ukrainian complicity, said people familiar with the assessments.
The concern among senior White House officials that Putin helped fuel Trump’s theories about Ukraine underscores long-standing fears inside the administration about the Russian president’s ability to influence Trump’s views.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to address whether Putin told Trump that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 campaign, saying only that information about the two leaders’ conversations is available on the Kremlin’s website.
This article is based on interviews with 15 former administration and government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer their candid views about the president.
Aides said they have long been confounded by the president’s fixation on Ukraine — a topic he raised when advisers sought to caution him that Russia was likely to try to disrupt future elections.
“He would say: ‘This is ridiculous. Everyone knows I won the election. The greatest election in the world. The Russians didn’t do anything. The Ukrainians tried to do something,’ ” one former official said.
Trump, the official said, offered no proof to support his theory of Ukraine’s involvement.
“We spent a lot of time . . . trying to refute this one in the first year of the administration,” Fiona Hill, a former senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, told impeachment investigators in October.
If you find an error, highlight the desired text and press Ctrl + Enter, to tell about it