The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Again: There’s no evidence Hillary Clinton triggered the Russia probe

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016, for their second presidential debate. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The conclusion drawn by the Wall Street Journal editorial board is stark and damning.

“[T]he Russia-Trump narrative that Mrs. Clinton sanctioned did enormous harm to the country,” it reads. “It disgraced the FBI, humiliated the press, and sent the country on a three-year investigation to nowhere.” Then: “Vladimir Putin never came close to doing as much disinformation damage.”

The editorial is titled: “Hillary Clinton Did It.”

A fiery, furious bit of rhetoric. Also rhetoric that is indefensible given the evidence. It is rhetoric aimed at scratching a long-frustrating itch rather than accurately informing readers.

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The trigger for the editorial was testimony from Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook, on Friday as part of a criminal trial targeting a lawyer who worked for a firm hired by the campaign. Mook told the jury that Clinton had approved the leak of an allegation tying Donald Trump’s private business to a Russian bank as the election neared. This, the Journal argues, is what Clinton “did.”

The criminal trial centers on whether the attorney, Michael Sussmann, was working for the Clinton campaign when he brought the rumored digital link between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization to the FBI and, if so, whether he failed to disclose that relationship to the bureau. Special counsel John Durham — appointed by Trump Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, which so annoyed the then-president — appears to be hoping to bolster the idea elevated by the Journal: that Clinton was a primary trigger for allegations about Trump and Russia.

So let’s evaluate that, first in the context of the Alfa Bank theory.

There are two important things to recognize about the idea that a Trump Organization server was communicating in an unusual way with that bank. The first is that it was debunked almost immediately, including by me. There was no real evidence that anything suspicious or election-related was afoot, and there were lots of reasons to think that the communications were an innocuous artifact of automated systems. It didn’t even make sense in the abstract. If you were setting up a weird back channel (for some reason!), why use a Trump-branded server?

In other words, the story didn’t even generate much static, beyond a community of fervent conspiracy theorists. Which is the second point: That community was already well-populated, thanks to months of speculation about Trump’s interactions with Russia.

In the event you don’t recall the 2016 election, we can illustrate this with data. Google searches and mentions on cable news channels show that a lot of attention was being paid to Trump’s possible interactions with Russia well before the Alfa Bank rumor became public at the end of October. There was a surge in Trump-Russia searches when that story came out, but only for a limited period.

Why was there already so much chatter about Trump and Russia? Because so many things had emerged to draw attention to the unusual nature of the candidate’s approach to that country.

In mid-June 2016, The Washington Post reported that Russian hackers were believed to have accessed the network of the Democratic National Committee. Material from that hack was published by WikiLeaks the following month, shortly before the Democratic convention. This deployment of material stolen by Russia and aimed at harming Clinton and the Democrats drew immediate suspicion. As did Trump’s public declaration at the end of the month that he welcomed Russian efforts to hack Clinton.

There was a robust conversation about possible business links between Trump and Russia. Conservative columnist George Will speculated that Trump wasn’t releasing his tax returns because he wanted to hide ties to Russia. Trump’s campaign manager gave an evasive answer about possible ties when asked — telling in part because that campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had his own known ties to Russia’s leadership. In June, The Post published a lengthy look at what was and wasn’t known about Trump’s business interests in Russia, a report that took on a different appearance after reports that Trump allies had softened anti-Russia language in the Republican Party’s 2016 platform.

All of that was the public understanding of the Trump-Russia question. But privately — like, at the FBI — things were more complicated still.

Manafort, for example, had been on the FBI’s radar already, being interviewed by the bureau even before he joined Trump’s campaign team. In early July 2016, another adviser to Trump’s campaign — someone who’d once been flagged as a potential target for recruitment by Russian intelligence — had traveled to Moscow. The release of the material stolen by Russia near the end of the month triggered an Australian diplomat to inform U.S. law enforcement that an adviser to Trump’s campaign had told him a few months prior that Russia had emails belonging to Clinton.

Law enforcement also understood that Russia was continuing to try to influence the election, publishing a warning in early October about possible threats to state elections systems. By that point, a federal probe of possible campaign-Russia ties was already underway, sparked by the information from the Australian diplomat. That probe was well underway by the time Sussman, the attorney who is on trial, showed up at the FBI with the Alfa Bank data (which the FBI quickly dismissed).

What’s interesting about the Journal’s effort to identify the Alfa Bank rumor as the point at which Clinton “did” the invention of the Trump-Russia conspiracy isn’t simply that it’s obviously not true. It’s also that this is the second attempt by Trump sympathizers to do so.

The first came even before Trump left office. He’d appointed John Ratcliffe as the director of national intelligence, hoping that Ratcliffe might do what Trump had first hoped would come from Durham: prove true his long-standing complaints about the Russia probe being a witch hunt. (Those complaints, incidentally, began even before Trump took office.) Ratcliffe set about declassifying information that might build that case.

That included the release in October 2020 of information claiming that then-CIA Director John Brennan had briefed President Barack Obama on the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers” to amplify questions about Trump’s ties to Russia. In other words, the same allegation in broad strokes that the Journal is elevating now based on the Mook testimony, just at a different point in time.

But — as with the Mook testimony — there’s a simpler answer. A lot of attention was already being paid to Trump and Russia by July 26, 2016, as detailed above. That includes attention drawn by Mook, who’d already been on TV before that date claiming that Trump and Russia might be linked. (As it turns out, incidentally, what Brennan appears to have been briefing Obama on wasn’t this alleged approval but that his intelligence indicated that Russia believed Clinton had approved such a plan on that date.) The Clinton campaign was following the conversation to undercut its opponent, not leading it.

We must of course also acknowledge the dossier of allegations compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Steele was working for a firm hired by Sussman’s law firm, and Trump’s allies have long claimed that his dossier (now largely debunked) was instrumental as a trigger for the Russia investigation. The dossier was influential in coloring perceptions of Trump’s interactions with Russia once it was made public, after the campaign. It was also cited as part of a warrant application to surveil Carter Page, the Trump adviser who had previously been a Russian intelligence target. But that application came after he left Trump’s campaign.

The Sussman trial is ongoing, and the defense has yet to make its case. Perhaps there was a ploy to use contrived information to trigger an FBI investigation of Trump, as Durham appears to hope to prove. But, crucially, it didn’t. And, just as importantly, an investigation was already underway both by law enforcement behind closed doors and in public by the media.

Put another way: Hillary Clinton didn’t do it.