Is President Elect Donald Trump Connected To The Kremlin?

"Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C."
"Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C."

When the facts consistently point in a given direction, what they point to is worthy of belief, and what is inconsistent with the facts is not. This is ordinarily what we mean by “the truth.” So, what if the facts consistently and harmoniously played to the tune of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump having strong ties to the Russian Government? What if this couldn’t be explained away as a fluke without squinting so much that it hurt? What if the facts consistently suggested that the man we are putting in charge of the greatest democracy on earth has dangerous ties to the Russian Government? In this article, I want to explore this possibility since, if true, it would be of momentous importance to the survival of America as a free and democratic nation.

Indeed, the very thought of such a possibility is so extraordinary that at first blush it would be hard to imagine. But, as Socrates admonished, the royal route to the truth is to question what we take for granted, to greet the facts with open arms, and to be prepared to travel wherever they may lead us. So, where do the alleged facts regarding Trump and the Russians take us?

First, there are reports covered extensively by the MSM suggesting that Trump admires Russian President Vladimer Putin:

• 1: Trump has praised Putin and has proclaimed that he is a stronger leader than Obama. “Certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” stated Trump at a national security forum in September; and, earlier in December 2015 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he stated, “When people call you brilliant it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia”; and that he “always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader, a powerful leader.”

• 2: Trump has also entertained ideas favorable to the Russians such as on not supporting NATO against Russian attacks, and cooperating with Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad against ISIS.

But, while these facts, by themselves, suggest that Trump likes Putin and even agrees with him on some foreign policy issues, they do not prove that he is in bed with him. Add another report:

• 3: Former Trump Campaign Chair, Paul Manafort, has been reported to have had ties to the Pro-Russian ousted President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich. So now we are getting closer to a relationship, albeit an indirect one.

But add these other reports to the woodpile and things start to get more interesting:

• 4: In July, U.S. officials told NBC News that Russian hackers attacked two state voter registration databases, that of Illinois and Arizona. The hackers managed to download information on as many 200,000 Illinois voters. According to Politico, there were more than 20 state voter databases on which hacking attempts were made.

• 5: In October 2016, researchers maintained that there was a link between the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair John Podesta’s emails and Russian hackers working for the Kremlin. According to the New York Times, private security researchers maintained Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the GRU, tricked Podesta into clicking on a fake Google login page, handing over his digital credentials.

• 6: The DNC, not the Republican National Committee (RNC), was hacked by the Russians. Perhaps Putin likes Trump because Trump likes him, but hates Clinton.

So maybe Putin targeted the Democrats for self-serving purposes not necessarily related to having ties with Trump. This can, indeed, explain report 6, but what motive would the Russians have had in the first place for stealing Podesta’s emails? A reasonable explanation is that the Russians favored Trump over Clinton, and tried to help Trump win the election. Report 4 supports this explanation since it supports the Russian intent to interfere with the results of the US election. But this does not mean that Trump was a witting participant in the hackings. But what evidence is there, in the first place, that has led the intelligence community to claim that Russians working for high level officials in the Russian government did the hacking?

• 7: According to Wired, some of “the most compelling evidence” included “a command-and-control address hardcoded into the DNC malware,” which was identical to malware used to hack the German Parliament in 2015, which German security officials claimed “originated from Russian military intelligence.” And, “an identical SSL certificate was also found in both breaches.” According to this report, there were also traces of metadata found in the document dump indicating that it had been translated into Cyrillic, the script used in Russian writing.

There are also Trump’s own statements related to the subject:

• 8: Oct July 27, 2016, Trump called upon the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email messages. “Russia, if you’re listening,” he said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

• 9: In the final debate, in October, between Clinton and Trump, when the moderator, Chris Wallace, pressed Mr. Trump on whether he would condemn the alleged hacking of the DNC by Russia he finally responded, “Of course I condemn. Of course I — I don’t know Putin. I have no idea. I never met Putin. This is not my best friend.” But then he added, “But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn’t be so bad. Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way.”

So what we see here is that Trump was reticent to publicly disapprove of Russian intelligence hacking DNC servers. He appears to have apologetically praised Putin after stating “I condemn” and “Of course I” without stating explicitly what he condemns. And he has even encouraged further Russian hacking activities (“I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”). While Trump has disavowed “knowing” Putin (which appears to be inconsistent with earlier statements Trump made), reports 8 and 9 suggest that there may have been a cooperative effort between the two parties surrounding the U.S. election.

• 10: On August 21, 2016, the Guardian reported that the Trump campaign had been in contact with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, the individual who leaked the allegedly Russian-stolen email messages. Roger Stone, a close confidante of Trump as well as of Paul Manafort, said that a “mutual friend” of Assange informed him in advance about the allegedly stolen emails to and from key allies of Hillary Clinton. Stone was also reported to have “boasted” about his having had direct contact with Assange, but later denied it.

While report 10 does not directly link Trump to the Russians, it does indicate that the Trump campaign had an interest in the email messages that allegedly originated from Russian hacks. But there is also evidence that the Trump campaign was directly in contact with the Russians.

• 11: After the election, on November 10, the Washington Post reported that, according to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, “there were contacts” with the Trump team; that “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage”; and that “We have just begun to consider ways of building dialogue with the future Donald Trump administration and channels we will be using for those purposes.”

Now consider these reports:

• 12: Trump has recently denied knowing Putin (see report 9 above), but, in a 2013 MSNBC interview with Thomas Roberts, when asked if he has a relationship with Putin― a “conversational relationship” or “anything he feels he has sway or influence over his government,” Trump responded, “I do have a relationship and he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today and he’s probably interested in what you and I are saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form, but I do have a relationship with him….”

• 13: In 2014 Trump stated, “I was in Moscow recently and I spoke indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success.” Trump had been in Moscow for a Miss Universe event.

• 14: However, according to NBC News, a source connected to the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov said Putin asked the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to set up a meeting between the two men when Trump was in Moscow, but their schedules conflicted and the meeting never happened. After the event, Putin sent a gift and note to Trump in New York City, delivered by Argalov’s daughter.

Report 14 contradicts the claim in report 13 that Trump “spoke directly” to Putin when he was in Moscow but it does corroborate their indirect communication. Reports12 and 14 corroborate that Putin was interested in Trump. Putin wanted to meet with Trump when he was in Moscow, and Trump confirms that Putin keeps track of him (“he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today”). So the relationship starts to sound more direct.

Still, however, this is very thin, not the sort of systematic, sophisticated, covert means of communication you would expect if there really was a Russian plot in progress. So maybe add this interesting, internally consistent set of alleged facts reported by Franklin Foer in Slate, October 31, 2016:

• 15: According to Slate, in late July, 2016, a Domain Name System (DNS) specialist who was entrusted by internet service providers with a comprehensive log of communication between the world’s servers (DNS log) tracked metadata of communications from Alfa Bank, a Russian Bank with ties to the Kremlin, to a Trump server.

• 16: In early October, 2016,the specialist passed the log on to Paul Vixie, a world renowned DNS specialist who actually wrote some of the DNS code that makes the internet work. According to Vixie, “The parties were communicating in a secretive fashion. The operative word is secretive. This is more akin to what criminal syndicates do if they are putting together a project.”

• 17: The Trump server was not public and accepted traffic from only a few IP addresses, mostly from the Bank. When the scientists themselves pinged the server they got error messages, showing that it was configured to accept only a few IP addresses.

• 18: When political activities increased, the traffic to, and from, the servers in question increased. For example the traffic peaked during both national conventions.

• 19: On September 23, after the New York Times asked Alfa Bank about the server, and said it might expose the connection, the Trump organization shut down the domain. Alfa Bank, which hired Mandiant, a cyber security company, to investigate, denied that it had a relationship with the Trump organization. According to Alfa Bank, Mandiant’s “working hypothesis” is that the alleged activity “was caused by email marketing/spam campaign by a marketing server, which triggered security software.” This activity, it stated, “may indeed have been initiated by someone for the purpose of discrediting parties to this traffic.”

• 20: However, four days after the Trump organization shut down the domain, a new host name was created which also communicated with Alfa Bank.

• 21: The first traffic to the server, after being given a new host name, came from Alfa Bank. According to Vixie, it is impossible that the traffic randomly found its way to the renamed server unless someone told the bank the address. “That party, said Vixie, “had to have some kind of outbound message through SMS, phone, or some noninternet channel they used to communicate [the new configuration].”

• 22: According to Vixie, the log was authentic. “The data has got the right kind of fuzz growing on it,” he said. “It’s the interpacket gap, the spacing between the conversations, the total volume. If you look at those time stamps, they are not simulated. This bears every indication that it was collected from a live link.” Reports15 through 22, taken together, point to a “communicative” relationship between Trump and/or his associates and the Russian government focused on the election. This can explain Putin’s personal interest in Trump. However, only metadata, not actual email messages, were captured, so the political nature of the correspondence can only be inferred from the functional relationship between increased traffic to and from the servers and election activities. But that there has been ongoing communication between the two servers seems highly probable. According to Richard Clayton, a cyber security expert at Cambridge University, any other explanation would be improbable. Add this fact too:

• 23: Richard Burt, a person who allegedly helped Trump write his first foreign policy speech is on Alfa’s senior advisory board. Burt was also recruited by Paul Manafort (see Report 3 above) to join Trump’s campaign.

This web of connections between the Russian government, Alfa Bank, and at least two people on the Trump team does suggest a political link between the Trump team and the Russian-government-connected bank. But there is more:

• 24: According to Mother Jones’ David Corn, a well respected former intelligence officer was told by Russian informants that Trump has, for the past five years, been groomed to work for the Russians, and has been receiving intelligence briefings from the Kremlin. He also said that Trump is being blackmailed by the Russian government. “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.” It maintained that Trump “and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It claimed that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.” It also reported that Russian intelligence had compiled a dossier on Hillary Clinton based on “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls.”

Indeed, it is a fact that Mother Jones reported that Trump is being groomed (and blackmailed) by the Russians, but this does not mean that what was reported is true. Witnesses can lie and have political interests too. But the probabilities of testimonials are themselves assessed on the basis of the reliability of the informant. Is a skilled intelligence officer prone to use shoddy sources? Can an intelligence officer have political interests of his or her own? It is certainly possible.

According to the New York Times, the FBI has been investigating Trump’s alleged connection to Russia, and has, so far, not found any “conclusive or direct link” between Trump and the Russian government. However, the Bureau appears to have considered the evidence piecemeal. For example, according to the Times, it entertained the possibility that there could be an “innocuous” explanation for the apparent connection with Alfa Bank “like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts” as was also the “working hypothesis” of Mandiant. True, this is possible; and the FBI understandably wants the proverbial smoking gun, that single deciding fact, like the content of the email messages themselves, as Exhibit A in creating a legal case. For instance, the National Security Agency (NSA) has powerful technology such as Xkeyscore, a worldwide “deep packet” analysis network that can search and analyze the content of any email message when given an email address. Nevertheless, in the search for a single deciding fact, or set of facts, we can, and often do, lose the forest for the trees; for the “smoking gun” may be the forest itself, and not this or that tree. Outside the legal context inhabited by the FBI, there may be enough facts available to the public through credible media reports for the astute, concerned citizen to put two and two together.

As such, it is important to keep in mind that there is strength in numbers. Like a house of cards, each fact can support the other. This is generally the way facts hang together when a belief is true. It is not one fact alone that builds the case. It is, instead, a consistent body of evidence that consistently points in the same direction. So where do the alleged facts as enshrined in reports 1 through 24 point? Do they point to a dangerous relationship between Trump and the Russian government, which has the capacity to undermine the free and democratic edifice of the United States?

Based on the aforementioned reports, a reasonable case can be made that the Russians may have stolen personally damaging Clinton email messages from the DNC (and nothing from the RNC) utilizing WikiLeaks to leak them; and perhaps they have also launched cyber attacks on more than 20 state voter databases in seeking to bias the election results away from Clinton, and, by default, toward Trump. But despite the fact that Trump has supported policies favorable to Russia, has praised Putin for his leadership, and has even invited the Russians to hack Clinton messages, it does not necessarily follow that there is quid quo pro between Trump and the Kremlin (“You help me to get elected and I will bring U.S. policy into alignment with Russian interests).

Allegedly, the Trump campaign has also been in contact (directly or indirectly) with WikiLeaks about the hacked emails before they were leaked. But are the sources (Roger Stone and his “mutual friend”) credible; and does this necessarily mean that Trump knew about it? According to David Corn, based on a source he considers reliable, Trump was being groomed for five years by Putin and the Russians are now blackmailing him. However, while a person who was being blackmailed might behave like Trump—pushing the Russian policy agenda—is it reasonable to rely on a single source?

Clearly, when such questions are raised, there is room for doubt. Keep in mind that we are speaking about probability, not certainty. So how probable does a reasonable person require an explanation to be before being willing to accept it, and do the alleged facts contained in reports 1 through 24 provide enough evidence to warrant belief that Trump is a national security risk?

When the stakes are high, it is reasonable to take even a small probability seriously. If a medical intervention poses a 1 percent risk of a serious complication, such as death, then a reasonable person may indeed take the risk seriously. On the other hand, a 1 percent chance of mild bruising would not ordinarily be reasonably taken as seriously. If Trump truly is working cooperatively with the Kremlin then the stakes are extremely high—the potential loss of our democracy. If there were just a small chance (say between 1 and 10 percent) that Trump has been engaging in quid pro quo with the Russians, is banking on him worth the gamble? What if the risks were much more substantial, such as 80 percent?

Based on the evidence presented here (which is likely only a trifling of what may yet be uncovered), and given what could be at stake, is it probable enough to accept that Trump has been working with and for the Kremlin? If so, then is it probable enough to give pause that now President Elect Trump may still be doing so?