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The new gambit: Claiming key Russia probe data was ‘made up’

Alfa Bank in Minsk, Belarus. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
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There was a mind-boggling number of things happening in late October 2016, so it’s likely that many people missed a story that dropped on Halloween: an allegation that there was a digital backchannel between Donald Trump, Republican candidate for the presidency, and a Russian bank. The idea was that, for some undetermined reason, a server owned by the Trump Organization was communicating with a server at Alfa Bank. It was all wispy, from the implications to the evidence itself.

Which is probably one reason you didn’t hear about it at the time. Within hours, experts on the sort of communication involved — a common query meant to identify the Internet address of a Web domain — offered that the communication was probably nothing more than an automated quirk. The Trump server wasn’t even a Trump server but a marketing domain bearing the Trump brand but operated by a third party. The rational explanation wasn’t that this was somehow a super devious effort by Trump’s team to communicate with Russia (very stupidly using a Trump-branded domain) but, instead, a result of a much more anodyne sort of communication from Trump: an advertisement. The story quickly faded.

Over the next three years, Americans learned a lot more about how Russia actually was trying to influence the U.S. election in 2016 and the alarm experienced by federal law enforcement and counterintelligence officials at the number of people in Trump’s orbit with demonstrable ties to Russian actors. In late July 2016, the feds had launched an investigation into George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser who had been told earlier in the year that Russia had obtained a number of emails from Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton — a possible reference to the actual hacking done by Russian agents of the Democratic National Committee and a Clinton staffer.

There were other links, including Trump’s campaign manager. The investigation grew and, after President Donald Trump fired the head of the FBI, was handed off to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. You know the story. Unless, that is, your primary sources of news are right-leaning media outlets and Republican allies of Trump’s.

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On Monday evening, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted what might seem to an underinformed observer to be a remarkable new development in the history of the Russia investigation.

“The CIA knew as early as 2017 that the Trump/Russia collusion data was not ‘technically plausible’ and was ‘user created,’ ” Jordan wrote. “In other words, it was made up. But Democrats and the media told you otherwise!”

The intent is clear. Jordan’s assertion that “the … collusion data” was “made up” is meant to suggest that the idea of collusion — that Trump or elements of his campaign worked with Russian actors — was simply a fiction created by the former president’s adversaries. That the whole thing was a hoax, just as Trump had long insisted.

This is obviously not what happened.

Jordan’s tweet was focused on a blog post from the pseudonymous author of the website TechnoFog. TechnoFog, in turn, was writing about a court filing that, they argued, pointed to some artificiality in data involved in the Russia investigation. Similar allegations were made by Fox News and then elevated by Fox’s sister outlet, the New York Post.

The court filing came as part of a criminal indictment obtained by special counsel John Durham against an attorney who worked for a firm hired by Clinton’s campaign. You’re probably familiar with the Durham investigation. He was tapped by Trump’s attorney general William P. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation itself. In other words, Durham’s job is to question whether the preceding probe into how and where Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected might have been aided by Trump or his allies was itself warranted. It’s a theoretically objective look for which Barr had an obviously subjective intent: proving that the Russia investigation writ large was an effort to attack Trump and little more. In recent weeks, Durham’s thrust has become more clear. He apparently hopes to prove that Clinton’s team intentionally deceived the government to impugn Trump with allegations of ties to Russia.

Last year, Durham obtained an indictment against a lawyer named Michael Sussman for allegedly having misled the government about his employment by Clinton’s campaign when he came to them with evidence suggesting a link between Trump and Russia. As part of the legal wrangling over the indictment, Durham’s team and Sussman’s have exchanged allegations including ones centered on the genesis of that evidence. That’s meant other previous bursts of purported exoneration for Trump, as when a Durham filing triggered claims (including from Trump) that the Trump White House had been hacked. It wasn’t, as Durham sheepishly admitted.

All of which brings us to the TechnoFog allegation. That story picked out a paragraph from a document produced last week, in which Durham’s team responded to filing from Sussman’s lawyers. The government intended to prove, the filing read, that the claims Sussman brought to federal agencies about purported Trump-Russia links were understood not to be true by those agencies. What’s more, one agency (presumably the CIA) had determined that data Sussman offered in defense of his claims “was not ‘technically plausible,’ did not ‘withstand technical scrutiny,’ ‘contained gaps,’ ‘conflicted with [itself],’ and was ‘user created and not machine/tool generated’ ” — although Durham’s team had “not reached a definitive conclusion in this regard.”

As you might have guessed, one of the claims Sussman had presented to federal investigators was the one about Alfa Bank. That wasn’t the only one; there was also a claim about how data showed the use of unusual Russian phones in the proximity of Trump and the White House. But that one was never publicly reported, as far as I know, and had no apparent influence on either the public or private discussion of Trump’s ties to Russia.

The claim from Jordan and Fox News hinges on the “user created and not machine/tool generated” component of the filing. You can easily leapfrog your way along the path they’re taking from this was artificially generated to the whole thing is a hoax, but you can hopefully also see why that path heads into Lalaland.

For one thing, it’s not clear what is being referred to. Let’s assume it’s the Alfa Bank data, which used domain-name records to show how the bank’s server was trying to identify the Trump-branded one. What’s “user created” on that? The presentation of what was allegedly nefarious? That’s almost necessarily true, as I suggested on Nov. 1, 2016. Are they saying those lookups didn’t happen? Or perhaps this about those phone data. Was there some human analysis of the data that introduced possible error? It’s hard to say from this distance, but since the filing conflates the two, saying that the second government agency had drawn the above conclusions about “the Russian Bank-1 data and Russian Phone Provider-1 data,” it may be the case that the “user generated” part refers solely to the phone claims — and, therefore, to the story that was even less publicly influential than the Alfa Bank one.

That there are so many unknowns is entirely the point. Jordan et al. are far less interested in the claim than the rhetorical conclusion that can be extracted from this nebulous bit of hearsay. It’s an unclear assertion made by a government agency reported without context by another party then contextualized by voices sympathetic to the Trump-Jordan view of things. It’s hugely distant from any sort of proof — and even if it were proved specifically that the Alfa Bank data was entirely fake (which no one is claiming at this point), it wouldn’t matter anyway! The Russia probe was not centered in any real way on the Alfa Bank allegation in the first place.

But here’s Jordan, declaring that “the data” were “made up” contra what “Democrats and the media told you,” then dusting off his hands. It is to the Russia investigation what ivermectin is to the coronavirus pandemic: A thing that is being hailed for what it lets people think far more than what it actually does.