CrowdStrike — the story hidden behind the whistleblower controversy.

Forget the quid pro quo for a moment, and whether the Donald Trump was shaking down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. It may be hard to set that aside, as it may turn out to be the moment of unvarnished, execrable conduct — more than the tweeting or pussy grabbing or in-your-face obstruction of justice — that forces many Republican defenders of the President to consider the depth of the hole they have already dug for themselves.

Of course it was a shakedown, that much is obvious. To quote conservative stalwart David French, “If I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of [Trump’s] call with [Zelensky] and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace…. The actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.”

Tucked in between the quid and the quo, however, was a comment of remarkable significance to which little attention has been paid. Before Trump brought up Biden, he first asked Zelensky 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…. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

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Trump defenders jumped on the CrowdStrike reference to argue that the favor the President was requesting from the Ukrainian leader as a condition of releasing military assistance appropriated by Congress had nothing to do with digging up dirt on Joe Biden. If there was a quid pro quo on the call with Zelensky, they argue, it was limited to Trump’s request for the help in tracking down the missing CrowdStrike server. Far from being representing an abuse of power — leveraging Ukrainian aid for campaign assistance — this was simply part of a laudable effort by the President, as Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows asserted, to “investigate 2016 election meddling.”

That argument might seem benign enough, as long as you ignore what CrowdStrike is and what server Trump was talking about.

CrowdStrike — for those who have better things to do with their time than watch Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity on Fox or spend time on 4chan — is a Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm that is the focus of an intricate, right-wing conspiracy theory. The backstory goes like this: In July of 2016, just before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks began to release thousands of emails that had been stolen from the email server at the Democratic National Committee. The people whose emails were hacked included Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta, DNC Chair Donna Brazile, and other senior DNC staffers. The DNC hired CrowdStrike to investigate the origins of the hack. CrowdStrike, along with the intelligence agencies that investigated the hack, ultimately concluded that it was the work of Russian intelligence operatives operating under the pseudonym Guccifer 2.0. The details of the DNC hack were laid out in Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Russian intelligence officers involved.

Right-wing conspiracy theorists, however, argue that a more nefarious sequence of events took place: When the FBI came around to investigate, rather than giving the DNC server to the FBI, CrowdStrike hid the real DNC server, and instead fabricated evidence to frame Russian intelligence operatives as the source of the hack. Rather than the Russians, the DNC had actually hacked itself, and conspired with CrowdStrike to fabricate evidence that would pin the blame on Russia, and ultimately discredit Trump’s 2016 election victory. Seth Rich, a DNC staffer, was preparing to go to the FBI and blow the whistle on the whole thing, before Hillary Clinton arranged to have him killed. To this day, the real DNC server is hidden somewhere in Ukraine.

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The Ukraine connection is apparently tied to CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch. Alperovitch was born in Moscow, where he lived until he was 14, when his family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Nonetheless, for reasons that are unclear, for right-wing conspiracy theory purposes he is presumed to be Ukrainian and to have hidden the real DNC server somewhere there. Hence, Trump’s request that Zelensky “get to the bottom of it” and track down the hidden DNC server as the price of receiving the Javelin missiles.

Think about this for a moment. If you are a Republican member of Congress working your way through the phone conversation and the whistleblower report, set aside the Joe Biden narrative and the partisan instincts clouding your vision and think for a moment about the implications of Donald Trump’s continued obsession with the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory.

This was not Donald Trump weaving some conspiracy theory into his stand-up routine at one of his campaign rallies to amp up his supporters, or dialing into Fox and Friends or Hannity to whip up some publicity. Trump’s request for Zelensky’s help in tracking down the DNC server was made during a private, secure phone conversation with a world leader. The call and the hotly debated quid pro quo would likely never have seen the light of day had White House lawyers not stepped in and prevented the whistleblower report from being sent to the intelligence committees as a confidential document. Instead, once the existence of the whistleblower report became public knowledge, officials in the White House panicked and published its memo summary of the phone call in an effort to tamp down public outcry over the stonewalling of the report.

As a result, we have been given a window into Trump’s mind, unimpeded by spin or mitigating circumstances, and irrefutable evidence of his embrace of conspiracy theories. Trump’s allies can no longer argue that he is simply pandering to right-wing crazies when he retweets stuff that he reads on conspiracy sites, or playing to the crowd when he spouts one outrage or another. Even his staunchest defenders must now acknowledge that the things he tweets and the offensive things he says are simply what he believes.

The implication of Donald Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky is that he believes the right-wing narrative about CrowdStrike. It is all of a piece. If Trump believes that the DNC server is hanging on a rack somewhere in Ukraine, that means that he believes that the DNC hacked itself and published John Podesta’s email as part of an effort to smear him. It means that Trump believes that the Russians were framed, and it probably means that he actually believes that Hillary Clinton had Seth Rich murdered.

Republicans in Congress should keep this in mind as they ponder the implications of the phone conversation and the whistleblower report. The President’s effort to push Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden will remain the focus of media attention, but Republicans should consider something that should be even more disturbing: the frame of mind of the man in whom they have invested their future. They should consider that Donald Trump is in fact a conspiracy theorist; it is not just a role that he plays on TV, it is not just an act to trigger the libs. Republicans should consider how much longer they are prepared to defer to him, as he continues to debase everything that they once believed their party stood for. And — if the greater good of the nation and the rest of the world matters anymore — they should consider that this deranged conspiracy theorist is the man who has his finger on the nuclear trigger.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”

Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

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