With so much attention on the law enforcement investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, it is easy to forget that five major Russia-related inquiries are running in parallel. The four others are being conducted by congressional committees.
Now, Foreign Policy magazine reports that another unofficial investigation is being run by a former chief of staff of the FBI's cyber division, Anthony Ferrante, who was director of cyber incident response at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and, briefly, President Trump.
Ferrante is reportedly working for BuzzFeed, although he and the website did not confirm the project to Foreign Policy.
Typical newsgathering would not involve hiring someone like Ferrante, but BuzzFeed is not in a typical newsgathering position. The site is defending itself against a pair of libel suits prompted by its publication last year of a highly publicized dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele that accused Trump and some associates of having inappropriate ties to Russia.
One of the suits was filed by Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
“BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them,” the site told readers at the time of publication.
Ferrante's job, according to Foreign Policy's Jana Winter, is to verify some of what BuzzFeed previously could not. Truth, after all, is the ultimate defense against a libel claim. Winter reports that Ferrante assembled a team that for six months “has been traveling the globe on a secret mission to verify parts of the Trump dossier.”
“With the special counsel probe under wraps,” Winter writes, “the BuzzFeed court case could represent the first public airing of an investigation into the veracity of some of the dossier's claims.”
The potential of a public airing is the real significance here. Trump frequently asserts that there is no evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential race, but his oft-repeated claim is misleading. It ignores Donald Trump Jr.'s willingness to accept what he believed would be damaging material about Hillary Clinton from a person described to him as a “Russian government attorney” who would share information as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.”
The president has said he did not know about the meeting between his son and the attorney, which occurred in June 2016 and was attended by then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and adviser Jared Kushner. Trump and Trump Jr. have said the session proved fruitless. But we do know that Trump dictated his son's misleading statement that Trump Jr. and the lawyer primarily discussed Russian adoptions.
Still, the evidence of attempts at collusion, if not overwhelming, is not zero, either. Moreover, Trump's “no evidence” mantra does not account for any possible findings by Mueller or congressional investigators that have not become public.
Perhaps no additional evidence of collusion exists, but it cannot be said definitively that no such evidence exists.
And if Ferrante finds any such evidence, it could emerge in BuzzFeed's legal defense.