The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It is entirely fitting that the Alfa Bank rumor will be the final bookend of the Russia probe

Security guards stand at the entrance to Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 24. (Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg News)
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One of the themes of the past few years has been that the complexity of the Internet, something intentionally left opaque to the user, generates a lot of activity that can be posited as nefarious.

In recent months, that has manifested as a pillow salesman declaring with great certitude that he and his team have data proving that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He doesn’t have that data, as he made clear both when he first claimed that he did and when he later offered to prove that he did, which he couldn’t because he didn’t. But that there are millions of bits of data flying back and forth between countries for millions of reasons, many inscrutable, allows both the well- and nefariously-intentioned to identify connections that don’t exist.

But something similar happened in 2016, as well, offered not as a defense of Donald Trump but a condemnation of him.

Then, Slate published a lengthy story exploring a series of Internet connections between a Trump Organization email server and Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution. The story dropped late on the afternoon of Halloween, about a week before the election, and seemed to confirm one of the most tantalizing indictments Trump faced: that he was illicitly working with Russia. Not only were there these communications, after all, but they seemed to align with key moments in the presidential race.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign quickly tried to capitalize on it, treating the claims that Trump was working with Russia as stated fact. Her surrogates wrapped it into a broader narrative of Trump’s efforts to kowtow to Russia. At last, it seemed, she had her smoking gun.

Except it was more of an extinguished match. The morning after the story was published, I wrote a lengthy examination of the claim, talking with an expert on this sort of communication who punched a number of very large holes in the idea that it marked quiet coordination between Trump and Russia. In short, the U.S.-based server was not actually a Trump server, but an outside domain the Trump Organization used to send out marketing emails. (To suggest it is a Trump server, then, is akin to saying that Gmail is your server, given your email address.) (If you have Gmail.) The Alfa Bank server appeared to be simply trying to validate the sender of emails it was receiving, the sort of thing we’ve trained email servers to do so that you receive slightly fewer random junk emails from hustlers. So a likely scenario was that the Trump Organization was using a third-party vendor to entice an Alfa Bank employee to visit a Trump golf club and the Alfa Bank server was responding by trying to figure out if this was a legitimate email or not.

The Washington Post wasn’t the only news organization to question the story. The Daily Beast indicated that it had been pitched on the story and passed. The New York Times addressed it in its infamous “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” article published the same day, writing that “the F.B.I. ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”

But the story was so tantalizing and still sufficiently murky that it lived on. Throughout the investigation into Russian inference in the 2016 election, the Alfa Bank rumor lingered. I remember being interviewed by someone at one point while special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was conducting his probe and the interviewer being surprised that I thought the story had been resolved — which, to any objective observer, it had sufficiently been. When Mueller released his report, the only mention of Alfa Bank was to describe efforts by the president to reach out to Trump’s team to preemptively try to address possible sanctions. That man, Petr Aven, had trouble figuring out who to talk to on Trump’s team, certainly an odd development had his firm been secretly communicating with the Trumps using short domain-name-server (DNS) lookups.

A later Senate report kept the door cracked a bit more, writing that it “did not find that the DNS activity reflected the existence of substantive or covert communications between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization personnel” though it could not necessarily “explain the unusual activity.”

That was where things stood until this week.

You’ll remember that, before Trump left office, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the Russia investigation at the direction of Attorney General William P. Barr. That probe, Trump hoped, would uncover a smoking gun of its own, proving that the entire Russia investigation had been contrived to position his campaign badly. Instead, the investigation conducted by special counsel John Durham seems to have quietly chugged along, failing to prove that such a thing had happened.

On Thursday, though, news: a lawyer working for a law firm retained by Clinton’s 2016 campaign had been indicted … for obscuring his client when discussing the Alfa Bank issue with an FBI official. That conversation happened in September 2016, before the Slate report.

The case against the attorney, Michael Sussman, is somewhat convoluted, boosting his lawyers’ argument that the indictment is centered on politics. But the indictment did include some interesting new details, such as the fact that even the researchers who had dug up the connection in the first place — when asked to see if there was anything bouncing back and forth between the Trumps and Russia — didn’t think it was publicly defensible. It also revealed that the Slate reporter who had broken the story, Franklin Foer, had been pushed to publish when he did out of concern that he would get scooped. Foer replied by sending along a large chunk of the report for review, something he explained to The Post’s Erik Wemple as being a function of the technicality of the story.

That’s very relevant, of course. Foer was checking to make sure that he was getting the technical aspects right, relying on the advocates for the story to confirm that he was. This is not entirely unusual, but this was a story alleging a possible act of collusion by a presidential candidate. Clearly, given their internal concerns, it was useful for Clinton’s extended team to be able to assuage any concerns about the details.

None of this, though, validates some of the overwrought responses to the new indictment. Right-wing media personality Jack Posobiec, for example, claimed on Twitter that this was “a key portion of the Russiagate conspiracy theory,” which is not true — though it was useful for Posobiec to pretend that it was enormously important as he slammed former Clinton campaign official Jake Sullivan, now a senior member of Biden’s administration, for hyping it. The New York Post editorial board similarly inflated the story’s importance, to claim that the “entire Russiagate scare was launched by the Clintonites,” itself a recurring claim that floats around on the right.

“It was all a setup,” the New York Post declared flatly on the basis of this new revelation. It was not all a setup, nor does this particular indictment prove it was. After all, one aim of Durham’s probe was to evaluate if the Russia investigation was not properly predicated. It hasn’t and it seems very unlikely that it will.

We still don’t know exactly what was happening between that Trump-related email server and Alfa Bank. For those who continue to want to believe that it was some complicated communications backdoor (illicit interactions relying, for some reason, on direct communication between a domain with the word “Trump” in it and one based in Russia), they’re welcome to do so. There’s always something that can be a jumping-off point for new questions, to keep certitude at arm’s length.

Just ask Mike Lindell.