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Move over ‘grassy knoll,’ the Trump-Russia bank tale joins unproven conspiracies list
If Democrats and their media accomplices keep recycling it, the unproven Donald Trump-Alfa Bank conspiracy may one day live right up there with the extra JFK gunman at Dallas' grassy knoll, the missing Oak Island treasure, or the Lost City of Atlantis.
After all, the best unsolved mysteries - especially in politics - are those that can be neither proven nor disproven.
And therein lies the travesty of the unrelenting, yet uncorroborated, allegation that Trump's campaign set up a covert communication system with Russia during the 2016 election, using a computer server in the United States and another owned by a Russian bank.
This allegation first surfaced with a Hillary Clinton-loving computer nerd in the fall of 2016, who claimed her group obtained domain name server (DNS) logs showing frequent "pings," or contacts, between a server owned by Russia's Alfa Bank and one in the name of the Trump Organization.
It turns out, though, that the server wasn't actually in the Trump Organization in New York. It was in a tiny Pennsylvania town. And it actually wasn't controlled by the Trump Organization but, rather, by an independent email marketing firm once hired by the president's company.
But, for now, we won't let those facts get in the way a good yarn. Plus, there are some interesting characters to follow.
Christopher Steele - the Trump-hating former British spy hired by opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which was hired by Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party to dig up Trump dirt in Russia - was next to pick up the allegation. Eventually, allegations of connections between Alfa Bank's parent-company Alfa Group, Russia and Trump made it into the dossier that Steele gave the FBI, although his grasp of the information was so shoddy that he misspelled the bank's name.
Next, the allegation surfaced in a Slate and a New York Times article just a few days before Trump was elected. (Perhaps appropriately, the stories ran on Halloween.) The Times's story, however, conceded the FBI was dubious of the whole matter.
Not to be outdone, private attorney Michael Sussman walked in similar allegations to then-FBI General Counsel James Baker in September 2016, according to four congressional sources familiar with testimony and documents gathered in the Russia case. The evidence of the connections to the Alfa Bank allegations also are in a footnote in the House Intelligence Committee report, where Sussman's name was redacted by the FBI. Congressional investigators are investigating whether someone in Sussman's firm, Perkins Coie, also provided Russia-related information to the CIA in early 2017.
That's significant because Perkins Coie's clients included the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign, and that firm paid Fusion GPS for Steele's dirt-digging. Sussman declined to say, through a spokesman, if he met with a CIA contact but insisted any contact the firm may have had with the CIA wasn't done at the behest of the DNC or Clinton.Still, it is hard to ignore his political connections.
And if that wasn't enough to pressure the FBI to look at the allegation, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson - Steele's boss on the Trump research project - brought the Alfa allegations directly to the No. 4 Justice Department official in December 2016. Assistant Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr's notes from the meeting have a nifty notation. "The New York Times story on Oct. 31 downplaying the connection between Alfa servers and the Trump campaign was incorrect," Ohr wrote in quoting Simpson. "There was communication and it wasn't spam."
Though the FBI repeatedly and publicly cast doubt on the allegations, some media outlets, such as CNN, continued to fan the flames of this tale, like Santa Ana winds on a California wildfire.
The latest to do so was New Yorker magazine, which just this month ran a long opus under the banner: "Was There a Connection Between a Russian Bank and the Trump Campaign?" No "new" news in that story, really. Just recycled fragments woven into a long, magazine-style story with an implicit plea for Democrats to resurrect the issue if they win control of Congress in November.
The relentless campaign to keep the allegations alive is remarkable not only for its political origins, but for what often has been omitted from the public narrative.
First off, the FBI has, on repeated occasions in 2016 and 2017, told me emphatically that it looked at the allegations and could find no conspiracy and, instead, believed the server communications were simply explained by normal internet traffic activities.
Secondly, Alfa Bank's law firm traveled to meet an FBI cyber team in Chicago in 2017 and opened up its data vaults to assist the investigation. There was no follow-up, Alfa Bank says.
The private lawyer who supervised the review for Alfa Bank was Brian Benczkowski. He later was confirmed to be the chief of the U.S. Justice Department's criminal division, one of the most sensitive and important jobs in law enforcement; Democrats asked him about the Alfa review during his confirmation. And neither the FBI nor the intelligence community offered any information to the Senate during his confirmation to contradict his conclusions that there was no conspiracy involving the Alfa-Trump servers.
Furthermore, not once in the 17 months of the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation has a member of Mueller's staff reached out to Alfa Bank to raise questions about collusion or the servers, the bank says.
Another common omission from the news stories on this subject involves the political leanings of a key researcher who has pushed the Alfa-Trump narrative. Indiana University professor L. Jean Camp, who is well respected in computer science circles, was an unabashed supporter of and donor to Hillary Clinton in 2016. After the 2016 election, Camp accused the FBI in a tweet of ignoring the Trump server allegations and instead focusing on the reopening of Clinton's email case. "The data are there and worth investigation. Why did FBI, #NYTimes kill this story before election to focus on Her Emails?" she tweeted in March 2017.
Camp acknowledged her political leanings to me last year, but insisted they had no bearing on her decision to raise questions about the data.
There's one final omission worth noting. Most of the stories include a passing reference that Alfa commissioned one or two reports concluding there was no nefarious communications between Trump and Alfa servers. But nearly all ignore one of the most important findings in the reports: The DNS data released by researchers such as Camp to make their case of a possible conspiracy between Trump and Alfa were formatted differently than the bank server's DNS logs.
"The format of the data does not match the format of actual logs at Alfa Bank," the respected firm Stroz Friedberg wrote in a 2017 report. "If the DNS log data posted by Professor Camp is actual DNS log data from Alfa Bank, it has been edited and placed into a different format."
That's a pretty big deal for a jury in the court of public opinion. And it is has been consistently omitted from stories on the subject, including the most recent New Yorker article.
The computer researchers, the DNC lawyer, Steele, Ohr and Simpson all may have had the best of intentions in reporting information to the FBI despite their political leanings.
That's not why the Alfa-Trump story lives on. It survives and festers because those who continue to recycle it omit essential facts that are germane to judging it.
News consumers and policymakers should demand that future iterations of this tale be more complete and balanced, and only told anew if new, substantial facts emerge from a place like the Mueller investigation.
Anything less is simply conspiratorial myth-making.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill's executive vice president for video.