Friday, September 24, 2021

Regardless of the Durham Indictment, We Still Don't Know What Was Up With the Trump-Alfa Bank Servers

In May of 2019, then Attorney General Bill Barr announced that he had tasked John Durham with investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. The former federal prosecutor from Connecticut has now be at it longer than the original investigation conducted by Mueller.

Three days before the term of the grand jury Durham impaneled was set to expire, the special prosecutor filed an indictment against Michael Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie. 

Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI in September 2016 during a meeting with General Counsel Peter Baker. Sussmann had requested the meeting in order to warn the FBI that news stories were about to be published regarding connections between the Alfa Bank in Moscow and the Trump Organization. According to the indictment, Sussmann is not charged with lying about the allegations he made, but about who he was representing. Durham claims that Sussmann told Baker that he was "not doing this for any client" when, in fact, he was representing the Clinton campaign and a tech executive. 

After two years and four months, that is the sum total of what Durham was able to come up with. Both Barbara McQuade and Benjamin Wittes have written excellent pieces detailing the weakness of Durham's case against Sussmann. The only two people who know what transpired are the defendant and Baker. During congressional testimony in October 2018, Baker repeatedly stated that he didn't recall whether Sussmann identified himself as representing the Clinton campaign. So if Baker is the only witness, he's going to have a tough time during cross examination if this one ever goes to trial. 

It's also worth noting that Barr specifically assigned Durham with investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Right wing media is now salivating at this indictment as proof that the whole thing was hatched by the Clinton campaign. Oh how quickly they've moved on from their accusations about the so-called "deep state." In this scenario, the FBI isn't the culprit, but the unwitting victim of a cabal working on behalf of Trump's opponent.

What these folks want to ignore is the fact that Mueller didn't even mention Alfa Bank in his report. Instead, he documented multiple instances of collusion between Trump and the Russian government - even though he wasn't able to prove a criminal conspiracy. In addition, Mueller found at least 10 examples of obstruction of justice. As Benjamin Wittes wrote, "The extensive findings of the Mueller report depend not a whiff on Perkins Coie or Fusion GPS (read: the Steele dossier). Not even if Michael Sussmann lied to Jim Baker about his clients."

When it comes to the accusations about Alpha Bank, I remember reading the first article published about that, which was written by Franklin Foer. Not being a techie, a lot of it went over my head. But in layman's terms, what it boils down to is that a group of computer scientists disclosed, on the basis of DNS (Domain Name System) logs, that two internet servers belonging to Alfa Bank had looked up the address of the Trump Organization server 2,820 times between May and September 2016. The speculation was that this might have been a back-channel way for Russian operatives and the Trump campaign to communicate. 

The accusations were serious enough that the FBI opened an investigation. From there things get a little confusing. Here is what the Senate Intelligence Committee reported in September 2020:

Based on the FBI’s assessment, the Committee did not find the DNS activity reflected the existence of covert communication between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization personnel. However, the Committee also could not positively determine an intent or purpose that would explain the unusual activity.
They also noted that the committee was not able to see the underlying records that the FBI used in its briefings to members.

In his report on the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted that "The FBI investigated whether there were cyber links between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, but concluded by early February 2017 that there were no such links.” However, in March 2017, CNN reported  this:
Federal investigators and computer scientists continue to examine whether there was a computer server connection between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank, sources close to the investigation tell CNN.

Questions about the possible connection were widely dismissed four months ago. But the FBI’s investigation remains open, the sources said, and is in the hands of the FBI’s counterintelligence team – the same one looking into Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election.

One U.S. official said investigators find the server relationship “odd” and are not ignoring it. But the official said there is still more work for the FBI to do. Investigators have not yet determined whether a connection would be significant.

What stood out to me about that report is not only the timing - coming a month after Horowitz said that the investigation into the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank had concluded. It also references the FBI's counterintelligence team. You might recall that on March 20, 2017, then FBI Director James Comey made this announcement during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part out our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.

That counterintelligence investigation (Crossfire Hurricane) began on July 31, 2016 based on Trump campaign consultant George Papadopoulos's assertions of Russians having damaging material on Hillary Clinton. 

On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey. According to Rep. Adam Schiff, that is when intelligence briefings on this matter stopped and he was not able to determine if the counterintelligence investigation had been closed. Apparently it had, which is what Michael Schmidt reported in the New York Times.

The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia…

[L]aw enforcement officials never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career F.B.I. counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them. Within days, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said that Rosenstein led him to believe that such a counterintelligence investigation would be handled by Mueller. But sources told Schmidt that “privately, Mr. Rosenstein instructed Mr. Mueller to conduct only a criminal investigation into whether anyone broke the law in connection with Russia’s 2016 election interference.” 

So Rosenstein limited Mueller to a criminal investigation and led the FBI to believe that the special prosecutor would take over the counterintelligence investigation. In other words, the Trump administration effectively shut down any probe into the president's decades-long personal and business ties to Russia. That would also shut down any investigation into the Trump-Alfa Bank connection. 

What we have is a former president who - at minimum - welcomed Russian interference in his election, obstructed justice, and shut down a counterintelligence investigation. In the end, we still don't know what was up with the Trump-Alfa Bank servers.

1 comment:

  1. The server was operated by Listrak, not the Trump Organization. Listrak is in the business of sending out marketing messages via E-mail, text messages, etc. The domain name was created by Cendyn, not the Trump Organization. Cendyn provides “digital marketing services [to] the hospitality industry.”

    Let's assume for the sake of argument that the DNS lookups actually do indicate a the existence of a secret communication channel. The channel would be between Alfa Bank and Listrak, because Listrak is the company that owns the server.

    Why would Listrak use a server with the domain name mail1.trump-email.com for this purpose? First of all, they would presumably want a name a little less obvious than secret-communications-server.listrak.com. Second, Listrak already owns a bunch of servers. Presumably the Trump Organization contracted with Cendyn to send out marketing E-mails, and Cendyn contracts the actual sending of E-mails to Listrak. At the direction of Cendyn, Listrak named one of its servers mail1.trump-email.com and used that server to send out the Trump marketing E-mails in order to make the E-mails seem a little more legitimate. Listrack needed a server with a bunch of spare capacity, and happened to chose mail1.trump-email.com.

    The idea that the DNS records indicate the existence of a secret communication channel between Alfa Bank and Listrak is a bit far fetched. The idea that they indicate the existence of a secret communication channel between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization is nonsense, because even if we accept the existence of a secret communications channel, there's no evidence connecting this channel with the Trump Organization.

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