Donald Trump’s legal team has moved to dismiss a lawsuit accusing them of using stolen information in the 2016 campaign by introducing a new argument. Using stolen information, say Trump’s lawyers, is protected free speech. Meanwhile, new information has appeared on two long dangling threads of the Russia investigation. A new connection has been drawn between former national security advisor Michael Flynn and a Republican strategist who reached out to Russian hackers. And that Russian bank that was communicating with the Trump Organization seems less like a coincidence, and more like … a Russian bank communicating with the Trump Organization.
A report in the Atlantic covers the lawsuit filed by donors and employees of the Democratic National Committee after information stolen from their email servers by Russian hackers was used by both the Trump campaign and Trump adviser Roger Stone. Lawyers for the Trump campaign argue that the First Amendment protects the “right to disclose information—even stolen information—so long as (1) the speaker did not participate in the theft and (2) the information deals with matters of public concern.”
That “did not participate in the theft” is an amazingly exact standard, considering that the Trump campaign may not have been directly involved in the theft, but was certainly aware that the material was stolen, and worked with WikiLeaks and others to disseminate the stolen goods. The other standard, “the information deals with matters of public concern,” is even more vague. The emails stolen were not government information and not connected to any crime. These were not the Pentagon Papers. Most of the material stolen, including most of that used by the Trump campaign, was little more than internal discussion and strategy proposals—nothing that affects public policy. Setting the bar at public interest opens the door for the publication of just about anything. As a test, interest is no test at all.
As the Atlantic indicates, this motion seems to be testing language that could be part of an argument from the Trump team when special counsel Robert Mueller issues a final report. Trump wasn’t conspiring with Russian operatives to use stolen information to harm his political opponent and subvert the election; he was using freedom of speech to reveal information of public interest. Freedom!
Meanwhile, at the Wall Street Journal, new information draws a firm connection between former GOP strategist Peter Smith, who committed suicide last year, and the raising of money to be used to locate … Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Smith met with Flynn first in 2015, and it looks as if the two may have participated in a business venture related to cybersecurity, which is striking, considering the connection both men have to Russians who stole information from the DNC and Democratic operatives. Before he committed suicide in 2017, Smith took money from several Republican donors, telling them that he was on the trail of emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal server. Over a year ago, reports surfaced that Russian hackers were trying to obtain this information and pass it to Michael Flynn. It wasn’t clear at the time that the efforts by Smith to fund Russian hacking were directly connected to attempts to get the information to Flynn. But that seems more certain at this point, since Flynn and Smith were working together even before Flynn joined the Trump campaign.
Before he committed suicide in a Minnesota hotel room, Smith formed a company and collected money to pay hackers for what he claimed was a copy of Hillary Clinton’s “deleted emails.” Smith claimed that many people had copies of the emails, and that he had sent copies to WikiLeaks. However, investigators have found no evidence that Clinton’s personal server was ever breached. The claims made by Smith that he had Clinton’s emails, and that they contained information damaging to the Clintons, have made his suicide part of the broader conspiracy theories on the Right.
Even as new information shows that Flynn and Smith were connected, a very different connection is drawing fresh attention. The New Yorker reports that the odd chatter between a Russian bank and a server based in Trump Tower now looks less like a coincidence, and more like communication. In 2016, IT researchers looking into claims of Russian hacking turned up a domain linked to the Trump Organization that was primarily used to deliver email advertisements, but was also seeing regular low-level traffic from Russia’s Alfa Bank. Alfa Bank’s computers were pinging the Trump server from a few up to several dozens of times each day. One other organization seemed to have a similar relationship with the mystery server: Spectrum Health, a company linked to Betsy DeVos and her brother Erik Prince. Based on the pattern and frequency of the communications, the researchers concluded that the three servers formed a “covert communication channel.”
After months of denial, apparent disinterest from government investigators, and dozens of “experts” jumping in to dismiss the communications among the servers as either something related to the advertising mission of the Trump server or some coincidence in the way networks chat, further research indicates that … it was likely a covert communication channel.
Information about the server was one of those bits of data that the New York Times had previous to the election but chose to dismiss as unimportant. Despite a detailed story filed by a Times reporter, the story was edited down and merged with other information in a story headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. sees no clear link to Russia” which was published on an interior page two days after the Times devoted the entire front page to the story that Comey had re-opened the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Slate published a more detailed article, and the Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, later published a column critical of how the issue had been handled—but only after the election. And the result of that was that Spayd was fired by Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
“The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had,” she wrote. Spayd’s article did not sit well with Baquet. “It was a bad column,” he told the Washington Post. Spayd argued that Slate had acted correctly by publishing a more aggressive story, which Baquet dismissed as a “fairly ridiculous conclusion.” That June, Spayd’s job was eliminated, as the paper’s publisher said that the position of ombudsman had become outdated in the digital age.
In June, 2017, Trump nominated Brian Benczkowski, a lawyer who had overseen the Stroz Friedberg report for Alfa Bank, to lead the criminal division of the Justice Department.
Republicans confirmed Benczkowski in July.
Trump’s advocates claimed that the investigations sponsored by Alfa Bank had proved that Alfa and the Trump Organization were not communicating. In fact, they sidestepped the question. Mandiant, one of the cybersecurity firms, said that it was unable to inspect the bank’s D.N.S. logs from 2016, because Alfa retained such records for only twenty-four hours. The other firm, Stroz Friedberg, gave the same explanation for why it, too, was “unable to verify” the data.
It’s unclear whether the Trump Organization server is one of the threads being followed by special counsel Robert Mueller, but he is certainly looking into the actions of Michael Flynn, who has signed an agreement to cooperate in exchange for a reduction in charges and sentencing.