The New Yorker’s stunning expose of the server communications between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank during the 2016 election is a must-read piece that exposes the tantalizing threads of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Reporter Dexter Filkins reaches no hard conclusions about what was specifically being communicated between the two groups, but he does eliminate the possibility that these communications were accidental. What’s more, Filkins reveals that The New York Times may have been complicit in covering up information regarding this activity right before the election.
The Times’ Role in 2016
Throughout 2016, the Times was deemed by many to be unnecessarily critical of Hillary Clinton, and not critical enough towards Donald Trump. Op-ed writers like Maureen Dowd, for example, published now-laughable columns with titles like “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk.” A study conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review revealed that the paper was less interested in covering her policies than they were in exposing “scandals,” and the number of words written about her emails was greater than those on all of Trump’s scandals combined.
One of their most infamous articles came on October 31st, 2016, just after James Comey re-opened the email investigation, and the same day Mother Jones’s David Corn revealed that Christopher Steele had given the FBI information regarding his findings into Trump’s Russian activities. Although Corn and a few others with their ears to the ground knew something was awry, the Times thought it fit to run a story with this headline:
The article went on to say that despite all the investigations that had been conducted – including one into the Trump Organization’s communications with Alfa Bank – the FBI couldn’t find anything proving that the Kremlin wanted to disrupt the election to help their preferred candidate. “None of the investigations so far,” they wrote, “have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
How They Got There
Eric Lichtblau, whose byline appears on the story, didn’t plan for it to turn out this way. According to Filkins, the computer scientists who first discovered the unusual activity between the servers took the information to Lichtblau in August 2016. He showed the information to experts, who confirmed his suspicions that something was up.
That September, Lichtblau met with the FBI, who told him that they had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s activity with the Russians, part of which included examining the server, and asked him to hold off on his reporting lest their investigation be jeopardized. This was a reasonable request. As David Corn explained to the Banter earlier this year, a counterintelligence investigation is more about gathering information than producing a particular result. If Lichtblau had published his findings, then those being monitored by the FBI may have deleted their communications and prevented the FBI from getting to the bottom of what was going on.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet agreed with the FBI but told Lichtblau that writing a story that reported on the servers’ existence and their activities would not stand on its own if they couldn’t report on the investigation as well. This frustrated Lichtblau, who wanted to go all-in. There could have been a way to compromise between the two sides, running a story that reported on the servers without revealing the existence of the investigation, but neither of them came to it. After then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused Comey of sitting on Trump’s investigation while re-opening Clinton’s, Lichtblau decided he had an opening to write about the servers – but what originally had been planned as an expose ended up telling readers that it was all smoke-and-mirrors.
On that exact same day, Franklin Foer published an article in Slate called, “Was a Trump Server Communicating with Russia?” The piece reached the conclusions Lichtblau might have reached had he written what he originally intended. However, Foer revealed that the Trump server had mysteriously stopped working that September after the Times spoke to B.G.R., a Washington lobbying outlet representing Alfa Bank. This was unusual: if Alfa Bank knew there was an investigation, wouldn’t they be the ones to delete the servers and not Trump? Communications resumed with another Trump server a few days later.
The day after Trump’s inaugural, Times ombudsperson Liz Spayd wrote critically of the paper’s decisions about what to cover during the election. “The idea that you only publish once every piece of information is in and fully vetted is a false construct,” she said:
“If you know the F.B.I. is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write. Not a “gotcha” story that asserts unsubstantiated facts. But a piece that describes the nature of the investigations, the unexplained but damning leads, with emphasis on what is known and what isn’t.”
Baquet defended his actions in The Washington Post, calling the column “bad,” and arguing that Foer’s efforts to expose the server activity “is not journalism. It is typing.”
Spayd was fired by the Times in June 2017 after the paper eliminated her position; Lichtblau left the same year for CNN, although he awkwardly shared a Pulitzer with the Times staff this year for their reporting.
Will the Times Apologize?
While Baquet may have expressed some remorse in Filkins’s article, calling the headline “flawed,” the Times still has not fully apologized for the story (nor have they apologized for the disproportionate amount of time they spent on Hillary Clinton’s emails). In fact, they seem to have doubled down on their obstinance in responding to their critics. At the Vanity Fair summit yesterday, publisher Arthur G. Sulzberger told attendees that “We know how to do journalism. We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’”
The Times misunderstands its critics, none of whom want to bring their organization down. They have done some excellent reporting since the beginning of this administration, especially last week’s blockbuster story outlining how Trump inherited a large fortune from his father and illegally avoided paying taxes. But an internal reckoning awaits them, and The Times can only avoid it for so long. With this newest revelation about what they knew and when they knew it, the moment may have finally arrived for the paper of record to look itself in the mirror and begin a process of righting itself by the American people.