So It Turns out That Trump Server Communicating with Russia Was a Big Deal After All (No Kidding)

A lot has happened in the last couple of years, so you'll be forgiven if you don't recall the story about the unusual link between a computer server at the Trump Organization and a Russian bank during the campaign.

I first mentioned it in November of 2016, a week before the election, after Franklin Foer wrote an important piece on the subject for Slate, "Was a Trump Server Communicating with Russia?" — and then mentioned it again in March of 2017, when Pamela Brown and Jose Pagliery at CNN reported that the FBI was investigating the server connection, which Foer had described thus in his piece:
The researchers quickly dismissed their initial fear that the logs represented a malware attack. The communication wasn't the work of bots. The irregular pattern of server lookups actually resembled the pattern of human conversation — conversations that began during office hours in New York and continued during office hours in Moscow. It dawned on the researchers that this wasn't an attack, but a sustained relationship between a server registered to the Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank.
As I said, if none of this is ringing a bell, you're surely not alone. Especially since the political press largely decided there was nothing to that particular story.


Dexter Filkins at the New Yorker: Was There a Connection Between a Russian Bank and the Trump Campaign?
Examining records for the Trump domain, Max's group discovered D.N.S. lookups from a pair of servers owned by Alfa Bank, one of the largest banks in Russia. Alfa Bank's computers were looking up the address of the Trump server nearly every day. There were dozens of lookups on some days and far fewer on others, but the total number was notable: Between May and September, Alfa Bank looked up the Trump Organization's domain more than two thousand times. "We were watching this happen in real time — it was like watching an airplane fly by," Max said. "And we thought, Why the hell is a Russian bank communicating with a server that belongs to the Trump Organization, and at such a rate?"

Only one other entity seemed to be reaching out to the Trump Organization's domain with any frequency: Spectrum Health, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Spectrum Health is closely linked to the DeVos family; Richard DeVos, Jr., is the chairman of the board, and one of its hospitals is named after his mother. His wife, Betsy DeVos, was appointed Secretary of Education by Donald Trump. Her brother, Erik Prince, is a Trump associate who has attracted the scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump's ties to Russia. Mueller has been looking into Prince's meeting, following the election, with a Russian official in the Seychelles, at which he reportedly discussed setting up a back channel between Trump and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. (Prince maintains that the meeting was "incidental.") In the summer of 2016, Max and the others weren't aware of any of this. "We didn't know who DeVos was," Max said.

The D.N.S. records raised vexing questions. Why was the Trump Organization's domain, set up to send mass-marketing e-mails, conducting such meagre activity? And why were computers at Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health trying to reach a server that didn't seem to be doing anything? After analyzing the data, Max said, "We decided this was a covert communication channel."

...In August, 2016, Max decided to reveal the data that he and his colleagues had assembled. "If the covert communications were real, this potential threat to our country needed to be known before the election," he said. After some discussion, he and his lawyer decided to hand over the findings to Eric Lichtblau, of the New York Times. Lichtblau met with Max, and began to look at the data.

Lichtblau had done breakthrough reporting on National Security Agency surveillance, and he knew that Max's findings would require sophisticated analysis. D.N.S. lookups are metadata — records that indicate computer interactions but don't necessarily demonstrate human communication. Lichtblau shared the data with three leading computer scientists, and, like Max, they were struck by the unusual traffic on the server. As Lichtblau talked to experts, he became increasingly convinced that the data suggested a substantive connection. "Not only is there clearly something there but there's clearly something that someone has gone to great lengths to conceal," he told me. Jean Camp, of Indiana University, had also vetted some of the data. "These people who should not be communicating are clearly communicating," she said. In order to encourage discussion among analysts, Camp posted a portion of the raw data on her website.

As Lichtblau wrote a draft of an article for the Times, Max's lawyer contacted the F.B.I. to alert agents that a story about Trump would be running in a national publication, and to pass along the data. A few days later, an F.B.I. official called Lichtblau and asked him to come to the Bureau's headquarters, in Washington, D.C.

At the meeting, in late September, 2016, a roomful of officials told Lichtblau that they were looking into potential Russian interference in the election. According to a source who was briefed on the investigation, the Bureau had intelligence from informants suggesting a possible connection between the Trump Organization and Russian banks, but no data. The information from Max's group could be a significant advance. "The F.B.I. was looking for people in the United States who were helping Russia to influence the election," the source said. "It was very important to the Bureau. It was urgent."

The F.B.I. officials asked Lichtblau to delay publishing his story, saying that releasing the news could jeopardize their investigation. As the story sat, Dean Baquet, the Times' executive editor, decided that it would not suffice to report the existence of computer contacts without knowing their purpose. Lichtblau disagreed, arguing that his story contained important news: that the F.B.I. had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Russian contacts with Trump's aides. "It was a really tense debate," Baquet told me. "If I were the reporter, I would have wanted to run it, too. It felt like there was something there." But, with the election looming, Baquet thought that he could not publish the story without being more confident in its conclusions.
There is much more at the link.

Foer notes on Twitter that Filkins "lands at about the same conclusion I did a few years back: This wasn't random." And further: "Dean Baquet didn't run the Times story on the subject — and he slammed my piece on Alfa to @ErikWemple. But he now says, 'It felt like there was something there.'"

In other words, the New York Times, who it should always be noted were running plenty of bullshit stories about Hillary Clinton's email server, decided not to run a critically important story linking Trump and Russia a week before the election, because editor Dean Baquet wasn't "confident in it conclusions," even though it "felt like there was something there."

Because there was.

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