Making Sense Of The Latest Trump-Russia Reports

Yesterday brought news about possible Donald Trump connections to Russia: The FBI is investigating his former campaign manager’s ties to Ukraine and Russia; a Trump-related server may have been communicating directly and exclusively with a server at Russia’s Alfa Bank; and a “veteran spy” claims that Russia has been trying to cultivate Trump for the past five years.

Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager until his history of advising Victor Yanukovich, the former Kremlin-favored Ukrainian president became public. Then he resigned. His resignation came during the Republican National Convention, after Trump operatives had removed the provision urging the supply of more weapons to Kiev from the party’s platform.  The FBI has acknowledged that it is investigating those ties, but not as a criminal matter. Manafort denies that there is an investigation.

I don’t have the computer expertise to evaluate the server claim, but I find Frederick Foer’s account persuasive, backed up by several named and unnamed computer experts. I have seen pushback on Twitter, but this is the only writeup I have found. The argument there is that the computer was registered to Cendyn, a company that specializes in advertising, otherwise known as spam-sending. As I read it, Trump did not have his tiny fingers on the keyboard, so he had no direct control over the account. This seems a naïve argument. A great way to hide a direct connection would be to name the account in some nondescript way and use an advertising agency to register it. Then instructions flow from Trump and his associates on the communications. The pattern that Foer describes seems exceptional.

The New York Times rushed out the story that Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers were working on, mentioned in Foer’s story. There have been few changes in the Times story. The story mentions the Manafort investigation, which is said to be for improprieties in the way he was paid by the Ukrainian government. The wording used by the Times is worth considering. I’ve bolded the significant words.

Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.

Intelligence officials have said in interviews over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump’s aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate. Still, they have said that Mr. Trump himself has not become a target. And no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.

But the F.B.I. ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts [mentioned by Foer].

The focus in the first two quotes is on direct links between Trump himself and the Russian government. In other words, were his tiny hands on the keyboard, and was he talking directly to someone in the Russian government? Both sides of that seem unlikely – because Trump seems to be computer-illiterate and because the Russian government knows better than to set up something like that. It’s a fair enough conclusion, but it excludes a great many possibilities.

It’s also fair enough to conclude that there could be an innocuous explanation for the pattern of computer traffic. This is where I don’t have enough expertise to judge. But if the pattern could represent something else, that might be worth investigating.

The difference in reporting the Clinton emails is instructive: those emails could show some terrible malfeasance on Clinton’s part, and they are reported that way. Or they could be more recipes for risotto, which is downplayed.

The “veteran spy” story relies on one anonymous source, always a shaky way to report. I put “veteran spy” in quotes because that’s not quite the way I would say it, although I recognize that David Corn is trying to emphasize that this is not just a guy who walked in off the street, and that Corn has done due diligence in identifying his source, even though he doesn’t share that source’s identity with us.

The most intriguing part of this story is

It [a memo by the spy, alleged to be based on information from Russian sources] claimed that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.”

When national laboratory personnel travel to Russia, the biggest warning is not to allow yourself to be compromised. Do not mess with attractive men/women. Do not exchange currency on the black market. Assume that your hotel room is bugged. Do not get drunk. If it seems questionable, don’t do it. I recall this sort of warning going back to the 1970s. It became particularly intense when many people were traveling to Russia and the former Soviet Union states during the 1990s. The Russian/Soviet/Tsarist secret services have used kompromat, information that can be used to blackmail, forever. It would be standard to try to get some on wealthy businessmen visiting Russia.

Trump’s public persona suggests that he would be less careful than national laboratory personnel are advised to be. Rumors were surfacing on Twitter last night about a tape of an orgy including minors. But it could be some sort of currency deal, or perhaps something else. Whatever the FSB thought could embarrass Trump. They could be wrong, but they’ve been doing this for a long time.

That makes it plausible. Until the tape surfaces, and it won’t unless the FSB sees a benefit to Russia in it, we just don’t know. As the Times quotes the FBI, no definitive link.

Even if the explanations most benign to Trump prevail on these issues, there is still reason to be concerned about his connections to Russia. The change in the Republican platform, the close Russian connections of his advisors and others around him, the overlap of his foreign policy with Kremlin preferences, and his outspoken admiration for Vladimir Putin are danger signs for an American president. Yes, the United States needs to work with Russia. But what Trump has said so far, very consistently, looks more like acquiescence to Russia’s program.

And yes, releasing his tax returns could tell us a lot about Trump’s relation to Russia.

 

Photo from the New Yorker.

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