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What The Cybersecurity Company CrowdStrike Has To Do With The Trump-Ukraine Matter


There's a revealing section of President Trump's July phone call with the president of Ukraine. It shows just how much Trump is still thinking about the 2016 election. He mentions the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. Here's how it reads in the memo from the call. Quote, "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike - there are ellipses here - I guess you have one of your wealthy people - the server, they say Ukraine has it."

Well, to decode what the president is saying, we turn to Ryan Broderick. He's a senior reporter at BuzzFeed. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So CrowdStrike is an American cybersecurity firm. Their name first came up in the news back in 2016 during the election. Why?

BRODERICK: They were the firm brought in by the DNC to investigate the hack that took place in 2016. And they're most known for being the firm that debunked the initial idea that it was conducted by a lone hacker. They were the people who basically said this was done by two groups of Russian-backed hacking outlets.

CORNISH: So they introduced the idea of it being a cyberattack, basically, from another country, foreign intervention rather than a random lone wolf.

BRODERICK: Yes. They're sort of the ones that started the whole idea of collusion with Russia.

CORNISH: Now, how does Ukraine come in?

BRODERICK: It's very confusing, but let's see what I can do here. So on the Internet, things move really fast. It's like a huge game of telephone. So once this firm caught the attention of the far-right online, they discovered that it was owned by a Russian American man who had previously done some work for a think tank called the Atlantic Council. It's a D.C.-based think tank, sort of works alongside NATO. And it's a pretty innocuous place. It does research on misinformation and digital warfare, things like that.

And there's a Ukrainian oligarch who was on one of the advisory boards for the Atlantic Council. And it seems somewhere along the line, the Ukrainian oligarch became the owner of CrowdStrike. This is not true, of course. But when things are moving so fast online, facts start to combine together, and it becomes very confusing.

CORNISH: So the idea is people who are on the far-right, conspiracy theorists, went looking for a connection, went looking to say, who are these CrowdStrike guys? And once they do enough looking, they're able to find a Ukrainian oligarch who they say, aha, this is the connection. So what about this server that the president implied was somehow in Ukraine? I mean, he - on this call talked to Ukraine's leader and brought up CrowdStrike. What would he be looking for?

BRODERICK: It's a common misconception that there is some sort of missing server from the DNC hack, but it's not true. The hack involved 140 cloud-based servers, and they were all decommissioned in 2016. There was no single server that was, you know, stolen in the dead of night and smuggled to the Ukraine or something. This was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the technology involved and the firm involved. And trying to make sense of it is almost impossible because it's not really a logical idea.

CORNISH: What's remarkable about the president referring to the DNC hack of 2016 and a 2019 call to a foreign leader?

BRODERICK: I think it just goes to show you how much he, like the rest of us, is stuck in this social media feedback loop that started with that election.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that?

BRODERICK: The 2016 election was a huge moment in America. It created so much discussion and viral content at once that we're all still analyzing and arguing and debating about what happened. And I think what this call proves is that President Trump is in that feedback loop as well.

CORNISH: You reached out to CrowdStrike. They said, look, we have nothing to do with this. But can I ask, in Ukraine, would Ukraine's president know what President Trump was talking about?

BRODERICK: I have to wonder what the Ukrainian president was thinking when he heard it.

CORNISH: That's Ryan Broderick. He's a senior reporter at BuzzFeed.

Thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

BRODERICK: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.