Bulwark: That Alfa Bank story is a still a bit of a mystery

The Alfa Bank story pushed by the Clinton campaign was always nonsense. It was so clear it was nonsense that two days after Slate published it they published a follow-up noting that there were a lot of problems with the story.

In a detailed post critiquing my piece, cybersecurity expert Rob Graham wrote, “The evidence available on the Internet is that Trump neither (directly) controls the domain trump-email.com, nor has access to the server.” This echoes the point raised by Vox, the Intercept, and others that the server was not operated by the Trump Organization directly. Rather, it was run and managed by Cendyn, a vendor that organizes email marketing campaigns for hotels and resorts. This suggests that most of the emails that emanated from this address were mass emails, related to loyalty programs, discount offers, and the like. At first, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told me the server “has not been used since 2010.” She continued, “To be clear, The Trump Organization is not sending or receiving any communications from this email server.” The Intercept has since turned up at least two examples of a Trump email, promoting hotels, being sent from that server in 2015 and 2016.

Philip Bump, to his credit, wrote a story for the Washington Post about the Alfa Bank story the day after it appeared. He compared it to a conspiracy theory.

For all of Foer’s exegesis of the situation — culminating, he admits, with a lack of certainty about what it all means — it seems likely that the simplest answer isn’t that someone affiliated with Trump or his campaign set up a backchannel method for contacting someone at Alfa Bank in Russia. It seems more likely that the human tendency for pattern-seeking is extracting a conspiracy theory from the automated clunkiness of the way the Internet works…

On Monday, the paper reported that the FBI had looked into and dismissed the idea that the two servers represented a secret communications channel. Investigators “concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts,” the Times’ Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers reported.

As mentioned, it wasn’t just media outlets on the left and right criticizing this at the time. The FBI decided fairly quickly that there was nothing to it. And after Sussmann shared a version of the material with the CIA, they also decided it was nothing.

And yet, 5 1/2 years later, the Bulwark’s Tim Miller is still arguing that maybe there is some truth to idea that this computer promoting Trump’s hotels was secretly communicating with a Russian bank.

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 Miller really believes this then he’s one of the few who still does. But his real goal here is to defend Hillary Clinton from allegations that she approved a “hoax” story. Because, hey, if the story might still be true then she definitely didn’t promote a self-serving hoax.

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.)

Adam Goldman, who was covering the Sussmann trial for the NY Times, reported Mook’s admissions about Hillary Clinton this way.

I’ve looked at a few stories about this testimony and it’s not exactly clear what the timeline was. The Alfa Bank data was initially given to Eric Lichtblau at the NY Times sometime in August or September. But when Lichtblau was asked to sit on it by the FBI, the campaign pushed it out again to Franklin Foer at Slate. CNN reports Hillary’s approval came in between the two efforts to get the story published:

Robby Mook said he attended a meeting with other senior campaign officials where they learned about strange cyberactivity that suggested a relationship between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, which is based in Moscow. The group decided to share the information with a reporter, and Mook subsequently ran that decision by Clinton herself.

“We discussed it with Hillary,” Mook said, later adding that “she agreed with the decision.”

A campaign staffer later passed the information to a reporter from Slate magazine, which the campaign hoped the reporter would “vet it out, and write what they believe is true,” Mook said.

In other words, if CNN’s account is accurate, Hillary approved her campaign giving the story to the media before the campaign gave it to Slate. Her campaign then reacted to the resulting story and she tweeted about it from her account, promoting the idea that it was possible evidence of Trump’s ties to Russia.

And yet, here’s Tim Miller’s take:

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…

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.

If there’s a big gotcha here it’s that Hillary approved passing “rumors” to reporters which were being spread by people paid by her campaign. In other words, the problem wasn’t that there were rumors. The problem was that her own people were the ones spreading those rumors which the FBI and the CIA quickly determined were just junk and yet she reacted to the story as if it had nothing to do with her. To me it was a pretty obvious attempt to gin up an October surprise, but I guess some people would rather keep believing it might be true.

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