Remembering the Journalists Who Pushed the Flimsy Trump–Alfa Bank Connection

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Earlier this week, special counsel John Durham handed out the first indictment coming out of his investigation into the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, charging Perkins Coie lawyer Michael Sussman with lying to the FBI about his affiliation with the Clinton campaign.

Sussman allegedly provided evidence of ties between team Trump and the Russian-based Alfa Bank to FBI general counsel James Baker, telling Baker he was acting as a concerned private citizen in handing over sensitive information. In reality, he was billing the Clinton campaign for his work, according to the indictment.

Moreover, Sussman allegedly had come into the information by way of a tech executive set to receive a post in the thought-to-be-forthcoming Clinton administration. That tech executive apparently had been pressing his employees to produce something attesting to a relationship between team Trump and the Russians, and the executive — whose researchers were reportedly uncomfortable with their task — called the Trump–Russia narrative a “red herring.” For a comprehensive and more than capable summary of the indictment and what it means, read Andy McCarthy.

The FBI was only one of the marks of Clinton-campaign contractors and the would-be Clinton administration. Members of the media were also fed the Trump–Russia narrative, including in the form of the Alfa Bank relationship.

Franklin Foer at Slate wrote the original story about a relationship between a Trump computer server and Alfa Bank on October 31, 2016, and declared that while there was no “smoking gun” tying the Trump campaign to Russia, there was a “suggestive body of evidence” that should have been scrutinized “in the broader context of the campaign.” Hillary Clinton herself promoted Foer’s piece.

Natasha Bertrand of CNN was one of the story’s greatest proponents after the publication of Foer’s article. In 2017, she praised Buzzfeed for its statement on an Alfa Bank executive-led lawsuit, calling it “great.” The next year, Bertrand joined Chris Hayes’s program alongside Foer to ask “what more evidence do you need? It’s very, very obvious.”

And when Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report did not so much as touch on the allegations pertaining to Alfa, Bertrand carried on, complaining that “innocuous or not, the server activity is not addressed in the Mueller report at all.”

Eric Lightblau at Time joined Bertrand in not taking the hint, instead parroting the gripes and speculation of Democratic senator and conspiracy chart enthusiast Sheldon Whitehouse.

Seth Abramson also had trouble letting go of the Alfa Bank theory even after the Mueller report came out, defending the Steele dossier by making fun of “Trump supporters” who “made hay about . . . Steele spelling ‘Alfa Bank’ as ‘Alpha Bank,’ which tells you how desperate they were to dispute a largely accurate doc.” The year before, he had asked for cybersecurity experts to weigh in on a blog theory on Alfa Bank.

It’s just a small sampling of the journalists who were swept up in just one botched story on the Trump–Russia relationship, but it’s nevertheless frightening how easily a campaign’s political, and a few well-placed personal, interests set wheels in motion at the FBI and in most major American newsrooms — wheels that stayed in motion for the better part of a half decade.

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