Ping!! How Those Trump/Russia Stories Got Shopped to the Media

Ping!! How Those Trump/Russia Stories Got Shopped to the Media

Ping!! How Those Trump/Russia Stories Got Shopped to the Media

Thanks to recent indictments and ongoing lawsuits about an alleged Trump computer back channel to Moscow, we can now see just how journalists got played—and who played them.


The indictment in November of Igor Danchenko—the operative used by ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele to gather information for his infamous dossier on Donald Trump’s supposed relationship with Russia—set the media back on its heels. The Washington Post removed large parts of two articles the paper had published based on information provided to Steele by Danchenko and posted editor’s notes on both stating that the paper could no longer stand by their accuracy. The Post also amended several other articles related to the dossier.

In the indictment, John Durham, the special counsel investigating the origins of the FBI’s probe into Trump and Russia, charged Danchenko with lying to the FBI about his work on the dossier and fabricating some information in Steele’s reports that was then cited in press accounts. Danchenko, a onetime analyst at the Brookings Institution, has denied the charges.

Now another potentially damaging torpedo is also headed toward the media—this time involving a different account of suspected collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. This curious episode, known as the Alfa Bank “pinging” story, centered on an allegation that computer servers owned by Alfa Bank, a major Russian financial institution, and one linked to the Trump Organization, were being used for secret back-channel communications.

The pinging story was shopped to journalists by some of the same people who marketed the Steele dossier, including Fusion GPS, the investigative firm that hired Steele on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to dig up dirt in Russia about Trump. Now information and documents coming to light through the Durham investigation and lawsuits filed by Alfa Bank and its owners against Fusion GPS and others are providing a much clearer picture of how the firm operated.

These new disclosures suggest that Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the two former Wall Street Journal reporters behind Fusion, used the same strategy to publicize the Steele dossier and the Alfa Bank pinging story. Along with others, they simultaneously funneled information about suspected collusion to journalists, the FBI, and lawmakers—and then told reporters that government officials were investigating the issue. The result was a feedback loop that convinced journalists who already abhorred Trump for good reasons to believe they were on the right track.

The unraveling of those stories has aggravated an already toxic public discourse over the 2016 election. Along with damaging the media’s credibility, these disclosures have allowed commentators on both the right and the left to recast history by arguing that findings by Robert Mueller III and a bipartisan Senate panel that Moscow sought to meddle in that election were based on misinformation.

Some have been quick to dismiss the Durham inquiry and Alfa Bank lawsuits as political hatchet jobs or vendettas—and there are tempting reasons to do so. Durham, though previously known for his successful prosecution of the Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (a case that involved FBI corruption), was appointed by William Barr, Trump’s attorney general. And the bank’s former president, Petr Aven, is part of a group of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin and was himself questioned during the Mueller investigation.

Meanwhile, Alfa Bank has filed so-called “John Doe” lawsuits, claiming that unknown hackers “spoofed,” or artificially created, the pinging data in order to damage the bank’s reputation. The theory has the same loopy, conspiratorial feeling as the pinging story, but it has given Alfa Bank—and the deep-pocketed oligarchs behind it—a legal tool to depose dozens of people involved with the episode.

Unlike Danchenko’s now-suspect contributions to the dossier, there was actual data in the summer of 2016 indicating that two servers linked to Alfa Bank and another associated with the Trump Organization were furiously “pinging,” or trying to connect with each other. The phenomenon was discovered by Internet experts who, alarmed by the Kremlin’s suspected role in the hack of Hillary Clinton’s campaign e-mails, scoured logs of so-called DNS lookups (massive databases that record computer interactions) for other signs of Russian cyber-mischief.

Five years later, no evidence has emerged that this pinging was nefarious in any way. Indeed, some experts have long believed it merely represented an exchange of marketing spam or digital white noise. But in 2016, the Internet specialists who uncovered the pinging suspected that it might signal a clandestine means of communications between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

Both the Steele dossier and pinging story started to take shape in mid-2016 not long after Fusion GPS was retained by Perkins Coie, the law firm that represented the Clinton campaign. That June, Fusion hired Steele, who dispatched Danchenko to Russia. A month later, in July, Michael Sussmann, a lawyer at Perkins Coie who specialized in cybersecurity, was contacted by a client, Rodney Joffe, about the pinging issue.

According to Sussmann’s indictment, Joffe, an Internet industry executive, was close to the experts who discovered the suspected Alfa Bank/Trump link. The men could have immediately alerted the FBI about the matter, a step that Sussmann may now regret not taking.

Instead, while Joffe and others continued to investigate the strange phenomena, the pinging story joined the Steele dossier as part of a campaign alleging secretive ties between Trump and Moscow. In the summer of 2016, Sussmann and Marc Elias, the Perkins Coie lawyer handling the Clinton campaign, met with staffers at Fusion GPS, according to the recent deposition of a Fusion researcher, Laura Seago, in an Alfa Bank lawsuit. Joffe was also present at a meeting that both she and Fusion GPS founder Fritsch attended, Seago testified.

Separately, Sussmann met in August with Simpson and Steele to brief them about the pinging allegations. Afterward, according to later testimony by the former British spy in a court case in London, Simpson assigned him to dig up information about ties between Alfa Bank and Putin. (The memo Steele produced about Alfa Bank in 2016 does not mention the pinging story. However, it became the basis for a lawsuit filed in 2017 by two of the bank’s owners against Fusion GPS and Simpson that is still ongoing. Both the firm and Simpson have rejected any allegation of wrongdoing.)

It was in late August 2016 that the first effort to plant the pinging story in the media occurred. Eric Lichtblau, a national security reporter then at The New York Times who was among the journalists invited by Simpson to attend an off-the-record briefing with Steele, sent an e-mail that month to Sussmann. In it he referred to the Kremlin-linked hack of the Clinton campaign.

“I see the Russians are hacking away,” Lichtblau wrote the lawyer. “[A]ny big news?” According to e-mails cited in Sussmann’s indictment, the lawyer replied, “Mind reader!… Can you meet Thurs and Fri?”

Lichtblau was eager to do the pinging story, but some of his Times colleagues were skeptical. The technical issues involved were virtually incomprehensible to nonexperts, and it wasn’t clear whether any actual messages were associated with the pings. So with Election Day approaching, efforts were ramped up to push out the pinging story to both the FBI and the media.

In mid-September, Sussmann met with the FBI’s top lawyer, James Baker, to alert him about the issue and tell him that the media was working on a story about it. Durham charged Sussmann with making a false statement during the meeting by telling Baker that he was not representing a specific client. Instead, Durham has charged, Perkins Coie’s records showed that the lawyer was billing his time on the pinging matter to the Clinton campaign. Sussmann has pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, Fusion GPS continued trying to stir up media interest in the pinging story. While some of those efforts have previously surfaced, e-mails now emerging in the Alfa Bank lawsuits reveal the extensive nature of the firm’s campaign—as well as the apparent sense of power and influence that its operatives accorded themselves.

“do the fucking alfa bank secret comms story,” Fritsch, e-mailed a Reuters reporter, Mark Hosenball, in mid-October 2016. “it is hugely important. forget the wikileaks sideshow.” Fritsch also told an ABC News reporter, Matthew Mosk, in an e-mail, “dude this is huge.” Neither Reuters nor ABC did the story then—but Fusion GPS soon found someone who would. That October, according to Seago’s recent deposition, she, Fritsch, and another employee of the firm went to see Franklin Foer, then working for Slate, at his home outside Washington, D.C., to brief him about the data suggesting ties between the Alfa Bank and Trump servers.

“My editors are very excited about this piece,” Foer e-mailed Fritsch. “We’ve been at the vanguard of the Russia story and they want to keep aggressively pushing. They can’t understand the tentativeness of the Times. We know that we need to move quickly. Anything you could do to help connect me with the source would help immensely. This is a big deal story. One of the biggest of the campaign.”

With the election looming, Fusion GPS was also stepping up its efforts to publicize the Steele dossier by giving copies of the former spy’s reports to selected journalists, and an ally of John McCain, the late senator who arranged for the dossier to reach FBI Director James Comey. And on October 30, Fritsch forwarded Foer a tweet by Sam Stein, then at HuffPost, claiming that Comey possessed “explosive information” about Trump’s ties to Russia. “Time to hurry,” Fritsch told Foer.

What Foer did next defies newsroom practices and journalistic ethics. Reporters often run specific parts of an article past a source to check for accuracy. But most journalists would never do what Foer did with Fritsch: provide a source with a prepublication draft of an article.

“Here’s the first 2,500 words,” Foer wrote Fritsch.

The next day, following the article’s publication, Foer tweeted, “I just reported: Donald Trump has a secret server…. It connects to Moscow.” The piece, which was actually more equivocal in its findings, was retweeted by Sussmann and the Clinton campaign.

Foer, who now works for The Atlantic, didn’t respond to written questions from The Nation. But he recently explained in a tweet to Erik Wemple, the media columnist for The Washington Post, that he’d sent the article to Fritsch to check its technical accuracy. Whatever the case, his joy over the piece quickly evaporated when he was forced to quickly write a walk-back after some Internet experts said there were benign explanations for the pinging.

Following the Slate piece, the pinging story faded away. But it, like the Steele dossier, would come roaring back after Trump’s election—and that’s when a new and interesting character entered the picture.

Daniel Jones was a former Senate staffer best known for his relentless battle with the CIA over its torture of terrorism suspects. (In the film The Report, Jones was portrayed by the actor Adam Driver.) Journalists and activists have long viewed Jones as a quintessential “good guy”—someone who refused to back down when challenged by the powerful. But his entanglement with the pinging story and with Fusion GPS form part of a cautionary tale of what can happen to anyone who ventures into Washington’s informational swamp, lured by the profits it offers.

Jones joined forces with Simpson and Fritsch in early 2017, a time when Fusion GPS faced a financial dilemma. With Trump’s victory, the firm’s work for the Democratic Party ended, and it needed a new source of funding to continue its investigations of the new president and Russian interference in American elections. Simpson and Fritsch came up with the idea of forming a nonprofit that, unlike Fusion GPS, could accept funds from deep-pocketed donors appalled by the prospect of a Trump presidency.

Initially, Simpson and Fritsch approached a journalist about heading the group, which was called the Democracy Integrity Project. That person would later tell me that they rejected the idea because the organization was a so-called “dark money” group, or one formed under IRS rules that allow it to conceal the identities of its supporters. Then, in January 2017, Jones met with Simpson and agreed to take on the post as the group’s head, and soon he, Simpson, and Fritsch were out raising funds for it.

In its first year of operation, IRS filings show, the Democracy Integrity Project took in more than $7 million in donations—with about half of those funds, or some $3.3 million, paid out in research fees to an entity affiliated with Fusion GPS. A company linked with Steele also received $252,000—or about twice the amount he was paid during 2016 election—from the group, while Jones earned $381,000 that first year as its executive director. (In 2018, Jones received a combined salary of $457,500 from the Democracy Integrity Project and an affiliated nonprofit he formed that year called Advance Democracy, which also used Fusion GPS as a contractor, IRS filings show.)

In early 2017, around the time the Democracy Integrity Project was created, both the Steele dossier and the pinging story would have a second life. Soon after Buzzfeed posted the dossier, articles began to appear asserting that a real estate broker named Sergei Millian was the unwitting source of some of the most explosive information contained in the dossier. Some reporters later told me that Simpson was a source for that tip—information which Durham recently charged Steele’s collector, Igor Danchenko, with fabricating.

Meanwhile, a Democratic staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee contacted Jones, told him that the panel was investigating the Alfa Bank pinging data, and asked him to serve as a consultant. In his deposition in an Alfa Bank lawsuit, Jones testified that he knew that staffer, Kirk McConnell, from his own days as a Senate staffer. While Jones testified that he was not initially aware who had brought the pinging matter to the attention of the Senate committee, he later learned that it was Joffe and Sussmann—two people previously involved with the pinging story and Fusion GPS.

Jones testified that when he took on the Senate role lawmakers felt that the FBI and other government officials had failed to adequately investigate the pinging incident. He assembled a team of Internet experts through the Democracy Integrity Project, who produced a report in October 2018. While concluding that the “pings” themselves did not contain hidden encrypted messages, their report challenged findings by the FBI and Alfa Bank that the phenomenon was innocuous. The report also contained a 200-page addendum from Fusion GPS detailing controversies involving the oligarchs behind Alfa Bank and their Kremlin connections.

Under questioning by the bank’s lawyers, Jones said he didn’t know how much of the $3.3 million paid in 2017 to Fusion GPS by the Democracy Integrity Project was related to that report, characterizing the payment as part of an annual contract. But he insisted that Simpson and Fritsch had no influence on his Senate report.

“We walled off Fusion” from our review of the server allegation, he testified. Jones did not respond to questions from The Nation sent to him and his lawyer seeking to determine what he told the Senate panel, if anything, about the role of Fusion GPS in the Democracy Integrity Project or his fundraising activities with Simpson and Fritsch for the group. But it also appears that Jones was shopping the pinging story to the media at the same time he was consulting for the Senate panel.

A New York Times reporter said Jones spoke in 2018 with staffers in the paper’s Washington, D.C., office and discussed the pinging story with them. They declined to pursue it, but he soon found someone who was interested, Dexter Filkins, a highly regarded former war correspondent with the Times, now at The New Yorker.

In October 2018, the same month that Jones submitted a draft copy of his report to Congress, The New Yorker published an extensive article by Filkins about the pinging episode. He had clearly spent months reporting the article, quoted Jones in it, and described how he had interviewed the experts Jones had assembled to review the data.

Filkins didn’t identify those experts by name, citing concerns for their safety, but referred to them by pseudonyms. (One of those experts, referred to in the article as “Max,” was Rodney Joffe, according to Jones’s deposition in the Alfa Bank case.) Filkins couldn’t prove in his piece that the Alfa Bank and Trump servers were communicating but his findings were similar to those found in Jones’s report: namely, that the innocent reasons offered by Alfa Bank for the pinging didn’t make sense.

Filkins’s article was cheered by many of the same reporters and commentators who had embraced the Steele dossier and Foer’s earlier piece. “I mean, what more evidence do you need,” Natasha Bertrand, a reporter then at The Atlantic, told Chris Hayes of MSNBC. “It’s very, very obvious.”

The New Yorker piece was also notable, however, for what it didn’t mention, specifically the operational and financial connections between Jones, the Democracy Integrity Project, and Fusion GPS. In early 2018, months before the article appeared, right-wing publications had begun disclosing those ties, but the mainstream media wouldn’t scrutinize them until much later. Filkins said in response to questions from The Nation that he was unaware of the financial links between Jones and the investigative firm. In her deposition, Laura Seago, the Fusion GPS researcher, said she met with Filkins while he was reporting his New Yorker article.

“I didn’t know about Dan Jones’s group paying Fusion,” Filkins wrote in an e-mail. “But I can’t imagine it would have changed anything if I had. I was just trying to get to the bottom of the computer data.”

His pinging article, much like Foer’s, didn’t age well.

Shortly after it appeared, Mueller, while testifying before Congress about his Trump/Russia probe, discounted the pinging story, saying “My belief at this point is that it is not true.” A subsequent report by Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the Justice Department, disclosed that FBI officials had also dismissed the likelihood that the servers were secretly communicating. Last year, Filkins published another article about the pinging story as the litigation over it was mounting.

Today, there is still no definitive finding on what caused the pinging. Those who believed that it might be a secret communications channel may simply have been mistaken. Meanwhile, Dan Jones recently sued Alfa Bank, accusing it of seeking to violate a confidentiality agreement it entered into as part of the “John Doe” lawsuits with him and the Democracy Integrity Project.

But as the Durham investigation and legal actions involving Alfa Bank and its founders unfold, they are starting to connect the dots between Fusion GPS and news accounts about the Steele dossier and the pinging incident.

In Crime in Progress, their best-selling book about the Steele dossier, Simpson and Fritsch praised Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post as one of the most “seasoned” journalists in the capital. We “trusted him completely,” they wrote about Hamburger, who also once worked at The Wall Street Journal.

Hamburger may now wish he had been more judicious. In October 2016, just before Franklin Foer’s pinging article was published, Fritsch e-mailed the Washington Post reporter, according to an e-mail cited in Laura Seago’s deposition. “Way OTR,” Fritsch wrote, abbreviating “off the record.” “Big story on Alfa Bank set to drop this afternoon. The USG is absolutely investigating this campaign”—“Just FYI, if you want to follow I’m sure the campaign will light this up.”

Hamburger didn’t write about the bank then. But his byline was on the two articles that pointed to Millian as a key dossier source that the Post was forced to disavow after Danchenko’s indictment. In her deposition, Seago described Hamburger as a visitor to the offices of Fusion GPS. Hamburger did not respond to questions from The Nation. But a spokeswoman for the Post said that he and another Post reporter, Rosalind Helderman, had “led the charge” in correcting the articles they had written about Sergei Millan. Separately, a still-confidential log of Fusion GPS e-mails that is part of the lawsuit filed by Alfa Bank’s founders against the firm and Simpson has the appearance of a Rosetta stone that, if fully disclosed, will likely reveal much about Fusion as well as about the reporters who interacted with it.

What has currently been disclosed from the log shows only the subject lines of those e-mails and their senders and recipients. But along with one message with the subject “Alfa Bank Playbook,” other e-mails in the log have subject lines that appear to bear on Steele’s meeting at the Tabard Inn with selected journalists, Foer’s article about Alfa Bank, and an article in Mother Jones by David Corn for which Steele served as the unnamed source.

There will likely be more red faces among journalists, but that’s not the point. Reporters get information from all kinds of people. Still, journalists have been far too willing for far too long to conceal the roles of private operatives and spies-for-hire in articles in exchange for getting “scoops.” News organizations, recent events suggest, may want to revise that arrangement.

As for Simpson and Fritsch, their friends say they ardently believed that Trump posed a threat—and that the former president, who tried to undermine the results of the 2020 election, continues to pose one. But Fusion GPS marketed itself by highlighting its relationships with journalists—and the two former reporters and their firm made millions shopping stories to the media. (Disclosure: I sought help in 2016 from Fusion GPS when searching for a hard-to-find lawsuit but never wrote any articles the firm marketed.)

Earlier this year, Simpson and Fritsch, apparently hoping to turn a page on the dossier, quietly formed a new company called Open Source Research. Seago said in her deposition that she now works for Open Source, rather than Fusion GPS.

But much like Christopher Steele, the two ex-journalists won’t likely be able to walk away from their legacies anytime soon. When asked why he and Simpson had created a new firm, Fritsch downplayed the move, stating in an e-mail that they had often formed new entities for professional or personal reasons.

“Fusion GPS is alive and well and will continue its important work for many years to come,” he wrote.

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