The editorial is titled, “Hillary Clinton Did It.”
A fiery and furious rhetoric. Also rhetoric that is indefensible given the evidence. It’s rhetoric aimed at scratching a long and frustrating itch rather than accurately informing readers.
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The op-ed’s trigger was the testimony of Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook on Friday in a criminal trial against a lawyer who worked for a company hired by the campaign. Mook told the jury that Clinton approved the leak of an allegation linking Donald Trump’s private company to a Russian bank in the run-up to the election. That, according to the Journal, is what Clinton “did.”
The criminal trial focuses on whether the attorney, Michael Sussmann, was working for the Clinton campaign when he brought the alleged digital link between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization to the FBI and, if so, if so he failed to disclose this relationship to the office. . Special Counsel John Durham — appointed by Trump Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia probe that so annoyed the then-president — seems hopeful to bolster the idea mentioned by the Journal: that Clinton was a main trigger for allegations about Trump and Russia.
So let’s evaluate this, first in the context of the Alfa Bank theory.
There are two important things to recognize about the idea that a Trump Organization server was communicating in an unusual way with this bank. The first is that it was debunked almost immediately, including by me. There was no real evidence that anything suspicious or election-related was afoot, and there were plenty of reasons to believe the communications were a harmless artefact of automated systems. It didn’t even make sense in the abstract. If you were setting up a weird back channel (for whatever reason!), why use a Trump-branded server?
In other words, the story didn’t even generate much static, beyond a community of staunch conspiracy theorists. What is the second point: this community was already well populated, thanks to month speculation about Trump’s interactions with Russia.
If you don’t remember the 2016 election, we can illustrate this with data. Google searches and mentions on cable news channels show that a ground particular attention was being paid to possible Trump interactions with Russia long before the Alfa Bank rumor became public in late October. There was an increase in Trump-Russia searches when this story came out, but only for a limited time.
Why was there already so much talk about Trump and Russia? Because so many things had emerged to draw attention to the unusual nature of the candidate’s approach to this country.
In mid-June 2016, The Washington Post reported that Russian hackers had gained access to the Democratic National Committee network. Material from this hack was released by WikiLeaks the following month, shortly before the Democratic convention. This deployment of material stolen by Russia and intended to harm Clinton and the Democrats immediately drew suspicion. So did Trump’s public statement at the end of the month that he welcomed Russian efforts to hack Clinton.
There was heated conversation about possible business ties between Trump and Russia. Conservative columnist George Will speculated that Trump was not releasing his tax returns because he wanted to hide his ties to Russia. Trump’s campaign manager gave a noncommittal answer about possible ties when asked – in part because that campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had his own known ties to Russian leaders. In June, The Post published a long rundown of what was and was not known about Trump’s business interests in Russia, a report that took on a different guise after reports that Trump allies had softened anti-terrorist language. -Russian in the 2016 platform of the Republican Party.
All of this was the public understanding of the Trump-Russia issue. But in private – like, in the FBI – things were even more complicated.
Manafort, for example, was already on the FBI’s radar, having been interviewed by the bureau even before joining Trump’s campaign team. In early July 2016, another adviser to Trump’s campaign — someone who had previously been flagged as a potential recruitment target by Russian intelligence — visited Moscow. The release of material stolen by Russia later this month prompted an Australian diplomat to tell US law enforcement that a Trump campaign adviser had told him a few months earlier that Russia had emails belonging to Clinton.
Law enforcement also understood that Russia was continuing to try to influence the elections, issuing a warning in early October about possible threats to state electoral systems. By then, a federal investigation into possible campaign-Russia links was already underway, prompted by information from the Australian diplomat. This investigation was well advanced by the time Sussman, the attorney on trial, presented himself to the FBI with the Alfa Bank data (which the FBI quickly dismissed).
What’s interesting about the Journal’s effort to identify the Alfa Bank rumor as when Clinton “made” the invention of the Trump-Russia conspiracy isn’t just that it’s demonstrably not true. It is also that it is the second attempt by Trump sympathizers to do so.
The first came before Trump even left office. He had appointed John Ratcliffe as Director of National Intelligence, hoping Ratcliffe could do what Trump had first hoped to come from Durham: prove the truth of his longstanding complaints that the Russian investigation was a witch hunt. . (These complaints, by the way, started before Trump even took office.) Ratcliffe set out to declassify information that might constitute this case.
This included the release in October 2020 of information claiming that then-CIA Director John Brennan informed President Barack Obama of “Hillary Clinton’s alleged endorsement on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from the ‘one of his foreign policy advisers’ to amplify questions about Trump’s ties to Russia. In other words, the same allegation in broad strokes that the Journal is now raising based on Mook’s testimony, just at a different time.
But – as with Mook’s testimony – there is a simpler answer. Much attention was already being given to Trump and Russia on July 26, 2016, as detailed above. This includes the attention drawn by Mook, who had already appeared on television before then, claiming that Trump and Russia could be linked. (In fact, incidentally, what Brennan seems to have briefed Obama on was not this alleged endorsement, but that his intelligence indicated that Russia thought Clinton had approved such a plan on that date.) The Clinton campaign was following the conversation to undermine his opponent, not to direct it.
We must of course also acknowledge the dossier of allegations compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Steele worked for a firm hired by Sussman’s law firm, and Trump allies have long claimed his (now largely debunked) record was instrumental in the Russia investigation. The dossier was influential in coloring perceptions of Trump’s interactions with Russia once it was made public, after the campaign. He was also cited as part of a warrant application to surveil Carter Page, Trump’s adviser who was previously a target of Russian intelligence. But that candidacy came after he quit the Trump campaign.
The Sussman trial is ongoing and the defense has yet to plead. Perhaps there was a scheme to use artificial information to trigger an FBI investigation into Trump, as Durham seems to hope to prove. But, above all, this was not the case. And, just as importantly, an investigation was already underway both by law enforcement behind closed doors and in public by the media.
In other words: Hillary Clinton didn’t.