The Alfa Bank Hoax Hoax
More than six years after the Russian government began a wide-ranging cyber attack on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and our political system, MAGA Republicans believe they finally have evidence that this scheme’s guilty party was neither Russia nor the Trump campaign that cheered on the attack, but Clinton herself.
This latest attempt at victim-blaming is premised on information revealed during the trial of Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who has been charged with lying to the FBI when he did not reveal his association with Clinton at a meeting during which he turned over data to the bureau that purported to show additional ties between Trump and Russia. Sussmann denies that he was working on behalf of the campaign.
The specific evidence Sussmann was providing demonstrated that there was an unusual connection between servers affiliated with the Trump organization and those connected to Alfa Bank—Russia’s largest private financial-services company. The evidence presented was based on Domain Name System (DNS) logs identified by a team of computer scientists.
Whether there was anything nefarious going on between Alfa and Trump remains a bit of a mystery. The FBI eventually closed the book on this lead—more on this a moment—resulting in a presumption that any suggestion of impropriety was false. But a satisfactory explanation for the DNS pings has never really been provided. If you want to nerd out on the various possibilities ranging from “random coincidence” to “there’s something fishy here,” the New Yorker did a deep dive on the available evidence back in 2018.
The part of Sussmann’s trial that has the Trump crowd rubbing their nipples is testimony from Clinton 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook in which he revealed that the candidate was briefed on the potentially dubious Alfa Bank accusations and was fine with the campaign’s decision to share the information with reporters. (Point of fact: Many in the Trump orbit have stated that Clinton approved the Alfa Bank oppo’s dissemination, but Mook testified that he told her only after the campaign had shared it with a reporter.)
This rather mundane bit of opposition-research dissemination was treated as a bombshell in the conservative press, where it has been presented as the long-yearned-for evidence that when it comes to Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, it was Hillary who perpetrated a scheme on poor innocent Donny Trump, not the other way around.
“Hillary Clinton Did It,” screamed the headline from the wizened graybeards of the Wall Street Journal editorial board over the weekend. According to the WSJ, Mook’s testimony about sharing the undeveloped Alfa Bank information with the press proves that “Vladimir Putin never came close to doing as much disinformation damage” as Hillary. Интересная претензия, Comrades!
Lil’ Donny Trump Jr. chimed in, arguing that Mook’s testimony somehow proves that Hillary was “behind the Russia, Russia, Russia smears against Trump.” Elon Musk tweeted that she advanced a “hoax.” And myriad troll accounts started retweeting my old article mocking the MAGAverse’s Russia Hoax false-flag theories (which you should really treat yourself to if you haven’t).
Among the problems with the reaction from the WSJ, Jr. and assorted other MAGA media influencers: Mook’s admission didn’t come close to proving any scheme orchestrated by Hillary. The only new information he provided is that the candidate said she was okay with her campaign having shared research with reporters about potential ties between Trump and Russia amid an unprecedented cyberattack on her which had been perpetrated by Russia and, at minimum, weaponized by her opponent. (As a former Republican opposition research aficionado, I can testify that passing along not-fully-verified information to journalists in the hopes that they could suss out more details is a time-honored, bipartisan practice.)
In short: The MAGA crowd’s big gotcha is that Hillary was okay with her campaign sharing rumors of questionable veracity about her political opponent with reporters and then tweeting the published information.
Seriously, that’s all they have.
The friends of Donald Trump are upset that someone might have made an accusation that they weren’t completely, totally certain was true.
A man who can barely open his mouth without passing along a “people are saying” smear. The king of apophasis himself.
Try not to go blind from the eye-roll.
I recognize that it’s not exactly a breaking news story that these assholes are acting in bad faith.
But the problem is that these smears work. People hear little bits of info out of context and it plays into the broader narrative that Trump was the victim of some elite cabal that was out to get him—a narrative which Trump and his media whores have been pimping since the very beginning.
But this is where the Alfa Bank saga gets really interesting: If you learn how the DNS server revelations actually came to light, what is revealed is that the Alfa Bank story completely undermines this “Russia collusion hoax” narrative that the Trumpists have successfully imposed on the American public.
So if your constitution is sturdy enough to survive some PTSD, then saddle up. I want to go back to 2016 and revisit how, exactly, the “Deep State” addressed these accusations.
By the time the Alfa Bank/Trump connection had been identified in the summer of 2016, the Russia op against the Clinton campaign was long underway. The phishing emails and DNC hack took place in the spring and the Clinton campaign was desperately trying to get the media and the public to take seriously the notion that Russia was conducting a full-scale effort to interfere in the election in order to push Donald Trump into the White House.
According to an interview with the New Yorker, the independent researchers who uncovered the Alfa Bank/Trump link decided to hand over what they found to Eric Lichtblau, a reporter at the New York Times, in August 2016. A month later Sussmann brought data suggesting this connection to a friend who was working at the FBI. Sussmann claims it was provided to him by Rodney Joffe, a tech executive and data scientist who was his client at the time.
In the intervening month, Lichtblau had been sharing the data with other cybersecurity experts. He told the New Yorker in 2018 that those conversations led him to believe that “Not only is there clearly something there but there’s clearly something that someone has gone to great lengths to conceal.”
In late September 2016, Lichtblau had determined that he had enough information to write a story about the servers. On September 21, he reached out to Alfa Bank’s lobbyists in D.C. about it. Two days later the Trump domain that had been the recipient of the Alfa Bank DNS lookups disappeared from the internet. Within a week the connection stopped.
What a coincidence!
As this reporting was underway, Lichtblau was called by an FBI official who asked him to come to the bureau’s headquarters. During that meeting the FBI asked Lichtblau to delay his story about the servers, as it might interfere with their ongoing investigation into the potential relationship between the Russians who were interfering in our elections and domestic contacts possibly associated with Trump.
The Times decided to honor this request after what executive editor Dean Baquet described as “a really intense debate,” since the paper had not determined the underlying reason for the server connection.
For the next month the Alfa Bank affair went dark. In the meantime the Clinton campaign was hit with a barrage of stories about the information in the emails that had been hacked by the Russians. Trump famously asked Russia to continue the hack, if they were listening and he would reference the leaked emails over 160 times on the campaign trail.
During this period the New York Times was not shy about covering the hacked materials. On October 10 the Times published “highlights” from the Clinton campaign emails. The word Russia does not appear in this article. The same day, the Times ran another article about the topic: “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Hacked Emails Show.” The only time the word Russia appears in this article is in reference to a quote from Clinton’s spokesman.
So throughout the final month before the 2016 election the paper of record sat on evidence of potential ties between Trump and Russia, doing nothing with it at the FBI’s behest—yet it reported extensively on the emails resulting from the Russian operation and how they were harming the Clinton campaign.
Meanwhile, the same FBI that had pressured the Times to avoid making public any information relevant to their investigation of ties between Trump and Russia did not show that same circumspection when it came to Clinton. The Comey letter to Congress about reopening the investigation into Clinton’s email server was published on October 28.
Sure doesn’t seem like all the players in this pro-Hillary cOnSpiRaCy were on the same page.
Alfa Bank came back into the picture on October 30, 2016, after a frustrated Harry Reid penned an outraged letter to the FBI charging that the bureau was withholding information about the ties between Trump and Russia related to the email hacks.
The next day, on Halloween, Slate’s Franklin Foer provided some of that evidence, reporting on the data initially presented to Lichtblau—which had been shared with him by the Clinton campaign, though he developed additional sources, including one of the original data scientists.
Foer’s article was not at all like the Gateway Pundit-style fabrications targeting Hillary that were saturating the internet at the time. He was meticulous about presenting the evidence available and highlighting the possible holes. He wrote:
One scientist, who wasn’t involved in the effort to compile and analyze the logs, ticked off a list of other possibilities: an errant piece of spam caroming between servers, a misdirected email that kept trying to reach its destination, which created the impression of sustained communication. “I’m seeing a preponderance of the evidence, but not a smoking gun,” he said. . . .
What the scientists amassed wasn’t a smoking gun. It’s a suggestive body of evidence that doesn’t absolutely preclude alternative explanations. But this evidence arrives in the broader context of the campaign and everything else that has come to light: The efforts of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager to bring Ukraine into Vladimir Putin’s orbit; the other Trump adviser whose communications with senior Russian officials have worried intelligence officials; the Russian hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s email.
We don’t yet know what this server was for, but it deserves further explanation.
Two days later Foer wrote a follow-up article that provided a “public airing” of the “valuable objections and credible alternative theories” that were presented after the article was published.
This—this!—is the Slate content that led the WSJ ed board over the weekend to claim that Hillary spread more disinformation than Putin.
It’s unclear if these people are idiots, villains, or crazies.
Meanwhile, back in 2016 the Times story on Alfa bank which was published that same day did not share Foer’s curiosity as to what underscored this connection.
The paper’s headline read “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” (That didn’t turn out to be quite right, seeing as the Mueller probe would go on to either indict or get plea deals from six Trump advisers). The Times story mentions Alfa Bank in paragraph 13, saying the FBI had dismissed the connection as possibly “innocuous.”
The NYT is the gold standard when it comes to investigative reporting. Seriously. But if the paper had been actively on Trump’s side, it’s not clear what it would have done differently in this case.
So here’s the output from the elite media and deep state’s supposed plot to frame Donald Trump.
Clinton’s campaign was materially damaged, day in and day out, by stories about emails that had been hacked by Russia. At the same time, Trump’s campaign repeatedly used these stories to brand Clinton as “crooked,” lied about its attempts to coordinate with the Russians, defamed a dead DNC staffer who had nothing to do with the leak, and suffered no consequences for being the dissemination arm of a cyberattack by America’s enemies.
Also: The Clinton campaign’s attempts to push back on this through their supposed allies in the press and the deep state were completely rebuffed. Not only did the FBI refrain from using the Alfa Bank information to try to take down Trump—they went out of their way to block the New York Times from reporting the story. And then the bureau provided sourcing that the Times used to preemptively exonerate Trump.
Meanwhile, the FBI publicly announced the reopening of its investigation into Clinton, which the Times giddily covered, alongside every development from the leaked emails.
And then, even Franklin Foer—the supposed vehicle for disseminating this anti-Trump “disinformation”—produced a balanced, well-sourced story about the strange Alfa Bank/Trump server connection that presented more questions than accusations and followed it up with another piece that more thoroughly addressed the doubts that it demonstrated foul play.
The true story of the Alfa Bank saga is that all the players at these much maligned Elite Institutions acted with extreme discretion in not overplaying speculative information during the heat of the campaign. And yet they are still smeared by conspiracists who showed no such discretion themselves at the time and are still looking for any excuse to justify their complicity in Russia’s successful attack on our political process.