by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Friday, February 18, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 263 days away. Election Day 2024 is 991 days away.
Happy Friday! I’m starting off today’s newsletter by breaking down a news story that a lot of you have been asking about. Later on, we’ll get to the latest from Ukraine and other news to know before you start your weekend, plus a reading recommendation.
I hope you all have a great weekend. As always, if you have any questions or feedback, you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ask Gabe: Breaking down Trump’s claims that he was spied on
I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about recent findings by special counsel John Durham relating to Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election.
Here’s one example of an email I received:
Q: Please include news on special counsel John Durham’s probe on the Democratic Party’s spying on Donald Trump prior to his election and while in the White House.
We are interested in understanding what happened with the Trump Tower and White House computer servers that were infiltrated. If true, this is orders of magnitude more extensive than Watergate. What have you found?
Since there’s a lot we still don’t know about this story — and because the news out of Ukraine has been dominating — I wanted to wait a few days to let the dust settle and make sure I could give a full breakdown to really explain this story.
So, let’s start off with a recap: In October 2020, then-Attorney General William Barr appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to serve as a Justice Department special counsel — the same position Robert Mueller once held — examining the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign (the investigation that led to the Mueller probe).
Durham’s investigation has continued under the Biden administration, and so far, he has secured three indictments: one against a Russian national who contributed to the so-called “Steele dossier,” another against a former FBI attorney who doctored an email used to wiretap a Trump aide; and the third against a cybersecurity lawyer named Michael Sussman.
The news that has been grabbing headlines this week is related to the Sussman indictment. During the 2016 campaign, Sussman met with the FBI to present information he claimed to have tying Trump to Russia. He was charged by Durham with lying to investigators during the meeting when he said he was not appearing on behalf of any client, even though he would later bill Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for time he spent working on the matter.
Durham filed a pretrial motion in the case last Friday, ostensibly about “potential conflicts of interest” in the case. But the motion also divulged some details about the Trump-Russia information Sussman had presented during a September 2016 meeting with the FBI’s general counsel.
In the motion, Durham alleged that Sussman worked with a tech executive (who has been identified as Rodney Joffe) who “exploited his access to non-public and/or proprietary Internet data” to surface data that allegedly tied then-candidate Donald Trump to Russia.
Specifically, Durham said, Joffe combed through domain name system (DNS) data for entities including Trump Tower, another Trump apartment building, and the Executive Office of the President. Joffe was attempting to establish that devices in those networks had been secretly communicating with the Russia-based Alfa Bank (an allegation which has never been proven). According to Durham, Joffe was using data that had been separately supplied to his company to assist in cybersecurity work; the prosecutor says he “exploited this arrangement” to research the Alfa Bank allegations.
That is the part that sparked a furor in right-wing media. “Trump really was spied on,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board declared. “Lawyers for the Clinton campaign paid a technology company to ‘infiltrate’ servers belonging to Trump Tower, and later the White House,” Fox News said.
“What Hillary Clinton and the Radical Left Democrats did with respect to spying on a President of the United States, even while in office, is a far bigger crime than Watergate,” Trump himself said in a statement.
But let’s clear a few things up. First of all, the connection to the Clinton campaign — and certainly to Clinton herself — is tenuous. The data at hand was combed through by Joffe, who passed it on to Sussman, who was a lawyer at Perkins Coie, which represented the Clinton campaign.
Durham’s pretrial motion does say that Joffe indicated during his research that “he was seeking to please certain ‘VIPs,’ referring to individuals at [Perkins Coie] and the Clinton campaign,” and the Clinton campaign did later promote the Alfa Bank claims once they were made public.
But there is no evidence that Clinton herself or even her campaign were aware of Joffe’s efforts. Sussman contests that he was working for Clinton when presenting the information to the FBI; although Durham has established he billed the campaign, Sussman says that was because of Perkins Coie’s flat retainer with the campaign.
Secondly, as seen above, Fox News and other news outlets have quoted Durham as saying Joffe was paid to “infiltrate” the Trump servers. But Durham does not allege that Joffe’s company was paid by the Clinton campaign, and he never uses the word “infiltrate” in the motion. (You can read it to see for yourself; it’s only 13 pages.) That claim came from former Trump aide Kash Patel.
Trump has gone further, claiming that he was “spied on” and that the crime at hand “would have been punishable by death” in another era. But it’s important to note that Joffe has not been charged with a crime: Durham merely says that Joffee “exploited” data that he already had access to through his company.
Durham himself seemed to respond to some of the right-wing narratives in a new filing on Thursday. The new filing from Durham came in response to one from Sussman, who charged that the pretrial motion had been an attempt to “instigate unfair and prejudicial media coverage” about the case.
Here’s how Durham responded: “If third parties or members of the media have overstated, understated, or otherwise misinterpreted facts contained in the government’s motion, that does not in any way undermine the valid reasons for the government’s inclusion of this information.”
As the New York Times reporter Charle Savage notes, Durham also implicitly acknowledge another hole in the narrative around Democrats allegedly “spying” on Trump during his presidency: the Executive Office of the President data that Joffe had examined appears to have come from the Obama administration, not Trump’s.
Both Sussman and Joffe have maintained that this was the case, and Durham seemed to acknowledge it as well with a reference to an Obama-era lawyer in his filing.
There is a still a lot left to be learned about this case and these allegations. Here are the questions the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board asked: “How long did this snooping last and who had access to what was found? Who approved the access to White House data, and who at the FBI and White House knew about it? Were Mrs. Clinton and senior campaign aides personally aware of this data-trolling operation?”
These are all fine questions, and more answers may emerge as the case against Sussman continues. It will be particularly interesting to see if we learn more about the ties between Sussman, Joffe, and the Clinton camp.
But the answers we have now come far short of the “Clinton spying” narrative that has been promoted by former President Trump and his allies, as Durham himself appeared to confirm in his filing last night.
The latest from Ukraine. “A new Russian invasion of Ukraine appears imminent, possibly within ‘several days,’ with signs pointing toward Moscow using a false pretext to send in troops amid alleged shelling in a contested region, President Joe Biden and some of his top aides said Thursday.” Politico
Shutdown averted. “Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a bill to fund the government through March 11, averting a shutdown this week and giving lawmakers more time to cement a deal on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year.” New York Times
The GOP primary wars. “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has endorsed Harriet Hageman, the Trump-backed opponent of incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming — a rare endorsement from leadership in a divisive GOP primary, and one that marks the culmination of a simmering feud between the two powerful Republicans battling over the future of their party.” CNN
Investigating Trump. “A New York judge ordered former President Donald Trump and two of his children Thursday to answer questions under oath about the Trump Organization's business practices in the state attorney general's civil probe of the company.” NBC News
A spike in child poverty. “The number of American children in poverty spiked dramatically in January after the expiration of President Biden’s expanded child benefit at the end of last year, according to new research released on Thursday.” Washington Post
A few months ago, I included a recommendation in the newsletter that you all read a beautiful piece about 9/11 in The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” by Jennifer Senior.
It was one of the most memorable pieces of journalism I’ve read recently, and from emails I received from several of you, I know many WUTP readers appreciated the piece as well.
Senior published another piece in The Atlantic this week that I highly recommend you take some time to read this weekend: “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.”
Like the McIlvaine piece, I found this to be another beautiful meditation by Senior on life and love, the type of magazine piece I read little by little throughout the week, savoring each morsel.
And perhaps it will remind you to reach out this weekend to an old friend — or, as Senior put it, to someone you hold “in unconditional positive regard.” Enjoy.
All times Eastern.
President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 10 a.m. He has no other events on his public schedule, but according to the public schedule of Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau, Biden will also host a virtual meeting today with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and NATO, to discuss Ukraine.
Vice President Kamala Harris is in Munich, Germany, to attend the annual Munich Security Conference. Earlier this morning, she held a bilateral meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
- Harris also held a multilateral meeting with President Egils Levits of Latvia, President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia.
First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Florida today. At 1:15 p.m., she will visit Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa as part of the Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.
- At 4:30 p.m., Biden will visit the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Miami in Opa-locka to host a private listening session with military families as part of her Joining Forces initiative, as well as a book reading event in collaboration with Disney. She will also deliver remarks.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 2:30 p.m.
The House and Senate are both on recess. Each chamber will hold pro forma sessions today — brief meetings held only to fulfill the constitutional requirement that they meet every three days.
The Senate will convene at 9 a.m., with the House following at 10 a.m. No business will be conducted in either session.
The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference today to discuss pending cases and petitions.
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