Trump, responding to a question from a reporter at the United Nations on Wednesday,said that he thought some of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's emails "could be" in Ukraine.
"I think one of the great crimes committed is Hillary Clinton deleting 33,000 emails after Congress sends her a subpoena," Trump said.
Trump's characterization is misleading here.
Clinton's team reviewed and sorted her emails in order to send work-related ones to the State Department in 2014. In December of that year, a Clinton aide ordered the employee managing the then-secretary of state's server to delete 33,000 emails her team had concluded were personal in nature. That was four months before Congress issued the subpoena for her emails.
The actual deletion, an FBI report later concluded, occurred in the weeks after the subpoena when the employee managing her server realized he had not deleted the emails at the time he was instructed to do so.
So Trump's timeline is technically right, but the intention he implies is misleading.Then-FBI Director James Comey said in a July 2016 statement that his agency's investigation "found no evidence that any of the additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them." Many of those "missing" emails were later recovered by the FBI, as well.
The agency eventually concluded Clinton was careless but not criminal with her emails, which were housed on a server located at her home in Chappaqua, New York.
Trump's email talk follows the disclosure of the private call he had with the Ukrainian president, during which he also hinted at debunked conspiracy theories surrounding the Russia investigation.
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“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike,” Trump told Zelenskiy, according to the text of the call made public Wednesday by the Trump administration. “The server, they say Ukraine has it."
He continued: "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. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance — but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible."
It's unclear exactly what Trump is getting at here, but the private phone call hints at several conspiracy theories he's raised in the past — and suggests that he still questions the FBI's conclusion that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee as part of Moscow's election interference efforts in 2016.
Trump has baselessly claimed in the past that the DNC, which hired cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike to investigate a breach that turned out to be a Russian hack, withheld evidence from the authorities.
More important, physical servers are often copied in the course of investigations and the evidence is stored as data, according to experts. Mueller's report confirmed Russia was responsible for hacking the DNC and disseminating damaging emails as part of its campaign to support Trump's White House bid.
“It’s possible to make copies of the physical server — forensically pristine copies,” explained Robert Johnston, a cybersecurity expert who led the investigation into the DNC hack in 2016. "It's perfectly normal practice."
Johnston, who left CrowdStrike at the end of 2016 and is now the CEO at Adlumin, declined to comment on the specifics of the DNC investigation. He said creating forensic copies is "perfectly normal practice" in such investigations, however, and noted that along with a careful chain of custody, such copies are admissible in court as evidence.
Trump's remarks, he added, are not clear.
"It does sound like an attempt that he’s trying to sow conspiracy theories again," he said. "He’s not actually fingering one of them, he’s just trying to stoke the fire.”
As for Trump’s 2017 claim to The Associated Press — that CrowdStrike is owned by wealthy Ukrainians — there’s no evidence of that either. The cybersecurity firm, based in California, is a publicly-traded company. One of its founders is a Russian-born American citizen.
The firm said in a statement Wednesday that "with regards to our investigation of the DNC hack in 2016, we provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI. As we’ve stated before, we stand by our findings and conclusions that have been fully supported by the U.S. Intelligence community."
Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesman for the DNC, called Trump's remarks "complete nonsense."
"Trump still hasn't accepted that Russia interfered in our election, and instead, is using a call with a foreign leader to push conspiracy theories," she told NBC News. "This is surreal."
During a news conference later Wednesday, Trump claimed the Russian meddling and subsequent investigation was some kind of deep-state setup designed to hurt him.
"What we're looking for corruption, an investigation started the Russian witch hunt — affectionately — and it was a total phony scam. It was set up by people within the government, to try and stop somebody from getting elected, and after that person, namely me, won," Trump said.
Prior to the news conference, Trump told reporters at the United Nations that his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is working to find out how the "Russian witch hunt" started. Giuliani, who has spent months pushing Ukraine to probe the Bidens, is mentioned by Trump during his phone call with Zelenskiy as someone who "very much knows what's happening."
Here's how the U.S. government has said the Russia investigation began, according to the Mueller report. In May 2016,a loose-lipped Trump aide told a member of a foreign government — whom media reports have identified as an Australian diplomat in Britain — that Russia had dirt on Clinton.
In late July, stolen emails from Democratic operatives were published online, and Australian authorities passed on the information they had about the aide to the United States. On July 31, 2016, the FBI opened an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were coordinating with the Russian interference operation.
American intelligence officials sought to warn the Russians off election meddling ahead of November 2016 and President Barack Obama reportedly personally warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to knock it off. He didn't, and Mueller, in his report and in his subsequent testimony before Congress, concluded a sweeping and ongoing effort by Moscow to interfere in U.S. elections.
Jane C. Timm
Jane C. Timm is a political reporter for NBC News.