The Morning Dispatch: Of Durham and DNS
The latest filings from special counsel John Durham don't present new evidence of crimes, but paint an unflattering picture of Team Clinton as it tried to make the Trump-Russia story take off.
Happy Thursday! TMD is, of course, primarily a Bears and Cubs newsletter, but we’d be remiss not to highlight what DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls are doing right now: It’s not every day you surpass Wilt Chamberlain to set an NBA scoring record!
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
A senior Biden administration official told reporters last night that, contrary to the Kremlin’s claims of de-escalation, Russia has actually increased its military presence along the Ukrainian border in recent days by as many as 7,000 troops. “Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk and make claims about de-escalation while privately mobilizing for war,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We continue to receive indications that they could launch a false pretext at any moment to justify an invasion of Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said yesterday the distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack that hit and temporarily shut down the country’s defense agencies, government services, and financial institutions this week was “the largest [such attack] in the history of Ukraine.” Officials said it was too early to confirm who was behind the attack, but hinted it was likely Russia attempting to destabilize the country and sow panic.
An American Navy aircraft in recent days had an “extremely close” encounter with multiple Russian military jets over the Mediterranean Sea, CNN reported Wednesday. U.S. officials described the provocation as “unsafe and unprofessional.” Pentagon spokesman Cpt. Mike Kafka said the Defense Department had “made our concerns known to Russian officials through diplomatic channels.”
Rejecting former President Donald Trump’s claim that the material is subject to executive privilege, President Joe Biden this week ordered the National Archives to send a slew of Trump White House visitor logs to the January 6 Select Committee. Archivist David Ferriero told Trump in a letter Wednesday the logs would be turned over by March 3 unless a court intervenes.
The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that U.S. retail sales increased 3.8 percent from December to January, the fastest pace since last March and well above expectations. The statistic is not adjusted for inflation, however, so a portion of the sales increase can be attributed to higher prices. The consumer price index increased 0.6 percent over the same time period.
Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee did not show up for a Tuesday vote on President Biden’s Federal Reserve nominees, preventing the committee from reaching a quorum and delaying the nominees’ confirmation. Sen. Pat Toomey, the ranking member of the committee, said Republicans were “seeking answers” to “basic questions” from Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee for vice chair of the Fed for supervision who has faced criticism for seeking to expand the scope of the central bank.
President Biden announced Wednesday that, “until permanent leadership is nominated and confirmed,” Dr. Alondra Nelson will act as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Dr. Francis Collins will act as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The move comes days after Dr. Eric Lander resigned from both positions due to allegations of workplace bullying.
Retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio endorsed Jane Timken, the former Ohio Republican Party chair, on Wednesday in the crowded race to succeed him. Earlier this week, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri endorsed Rep. Vicky Hartzler in the race to fill retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s Senate seat.
About That Durham Filing
Somehow, it’s been nearly three years since former Attorney General William Barr first tapped John Durham, then a U.S. attorney, to examine the origins of the Russia investigation that dominated the first half of Donald Trump’s presidency. Appointed as a special counsel in 2020 before Barr left his post, Durham has kept a low profile throughout his inquiry, surfacing only a handful of times to announce low-level indictments. His most significant charge thus far came last September, when a federal grand jury indicted Michael Sussmann—a former attorney for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign—on one count of lying to the FBI.
If you haven’t heard by now, that changed this week: A new court filing from Durham revealed—depending on who you ask—a political scandal ten times worse than Watergate, or a total nothingburger. As with most stories of this nature, there’s more to the story than either of these narratives, and Andrew charts it in a piece up on the site today.
Before we dive in, some background from Sussmann’s indictment last year.
When in September 2016 Sussmann took to the FBI a bundle of information supposedly linking Team Trump to Russia, he falsely told FBI General Counsel James Baker that he was not doing so on behalf of any client, Durham alleges. In reality, according to the indictment, Sussmann was doing so on behalf of both the Clinton campaign and Rodney Joffe, then senior vice president at the information services firm Neustar.
It’s this alleged lie—which Sussmann denies—that forms the basis of Durham’s charge against him. But it’s the details of what came before that meeting—of how that bundle of information came to be—that have provoked the latest bout of controversy.
According to the new filing, Joffe (referred to throughout as “Tech Executive-1”) used his perch as a leader at a well-placed company—“exploited his access to non-public and/or proprietary internet data,” in Durham’s parlance—to obtain large amounts of raw internet data touching Team Trump, and put his associates to work analyzing it “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump” in order to please “certain VIPs” at the Clinton campaign and its counsel, the firm Perkins Coie.
Durham’s latest filing details what internet data was at the heart of the matter.
Domain name system (DNS) data connected with, among other entities, “Trump Tower, Donald Trump’s Central Park West apartment building, and the Executive Office of the President of the United States.”
That assertion is the main reason this story has received so much attention on the right.
Internet traffic from the White House, exploited by a private actor with ties to the Clinton campaign? It’s not hard to see why conservative media would pick up the ball and run with this, and so they did: Fox News’ report said the Clinton campaign had “paid a technology company to ‘infiltrate’ servers belonging to Trump Tower, and later the White House,” while the Daily Mail asserted that the firm had been paid “to hack into [Trump’s] White House and Trump Tower servers.”
The most histrionic reaction came from the former president himself. “This is a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate and those who were involved in and knew about this spying operation should be subject to criminal prosecution,” Trump raged in a statement. “In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.”
The conduct described is quite sketchy, of course, but the data collection itself was likely legal—as evidenced by the fact that Durham has not charged Joffe with a crime.
Neustar had contractual access to the data in question. The Virginia-based company is one of the world’s largest providers of DNS services, with annual revenue north of $1 billion, and it had a contract to perform such services for the White House.
What, precisely, did the data entail? Describing it as “internet traffic,” as Durham did, is accurate but perhaps slightly misleading to us non-techies—it isn’t synonymous with, say, users’ web history. DNS servers are like internet phone books, translating web addresses that are intelligible to human beings (say, “thedispatch.com”) into IP addresses, the strings of digits that tell a computer where to find the server where that website lives. When one server needs to find another, it consults the DNS server to find out where to look, which the server then logs as a DNS lookup. DNS lookup logs thus don’t tell you what one server is communicating with another—merely that two servers are in communication.
What companies like Neustar offer clients is, in essence, a phone book that stops you from dialing scammers—if a particular server is known to have been used for phishing schemes, for instance, Neustar may swoop in and prevent your computer from establishing a connection with that server. This is why DNS lookups are logged in the first place—if your organization’s being targeted, it’s good to know when and from where.
But Durham alleges that Joffe put this data to use in a way that was anything but routine.
“Tech Executive-1 tasked these researchers to mine Internet data to establish ‘an inference’ and ‘narrative’ tying then-candidate Trump to Russia.” In the end, this research bore fruit in the form of a theory of Trump’s ties to Russia—which made its way into the press in the last days of the 2020 campaign—that a “Trump server” was secretly communicating with Russia-based Alfa Bank. (The theory fell apart in days; the “Trump server” in question turned out to have belonged to marketing company Cendyn, which sent marketing emails for Trump hotels.)
In the original indictment of Sussmann, Durham provided an email from Joffe suggesting a motive for his actions: “I was tentatively offered the top [cybersecurity] job by the Democrats when it looked like they’d win. I definitely would not take the job under Trump.”
Whether this sketchy-but-likely-legal behavior persisted beyond the 2016 campaign is unclear. Much of the conservative response to the Durham indictment assumed that the data from the Executive Office of the President Durham mentioned was data from Trump’s presidency; Durham himself seemed to suggest this when he described Sussmann as claiming “that these lookups demonstrated that Trump and/or his associates were using supposedly rare, Russian-made wireless phones in the vicinity of the White House and other locations.”
But Sussmann’s team denied this outright in a subsequent filing, accusing Durham of mischaracterizing the data: “The Special Counsel is well aware that the data provided to Agency-2 pertained only to the period of time before Mr. Trump took office, when Barack Obama was president.” The Sussman filing also heaps scorn on Durham’s “alleged theory that Mr. Sussmann was acting in concert with the Clinton Campaign” in this February 2017 meeting, given that “Mr. Sussmann’s meeting with Agency-2 happened well after the 2016 presidential election, at a time when the Clinton Campaign had effectively ceased to exist.”
Only Durham and his team have the full picture, and their evidence will need to be presented in court. But the special counsel’s filings suggest that Team Clinton didn’t just try to get the FBI on Trump’s trail; they were also doing reconnaissance of their own.
Joffe, a tech executive with non-trivial ties to the Clinton campaign—they shared a lawyer in Sussmann, and Joffe believed he had been offered a tentative position in a Clinton administration—used his position atop a company with extensive government and private-sector contracts to go digging for information on Clinton’s opponent, an effort in which Sussmann was involved and for which (Durham asserts) Sussmann billed his time to the Clinton campaign.
Sussmann also billed to the Clinton campaign his time spent meeting with the reporter who wrote the initial Trump/Alfa Bank story in late October 2016, according to Durham’s indictment.
When that story went public, Clinton leaned into it heavily, tweeting that it “could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow.”
“Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank,” Jake Sullivan, then a senior policy adviser to Clinton, said in a statement at that time. “This secret hotline may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Trump’s ties to Russia.”
Worth Your Time
Matthew Walther has “hardly been a noncombatant” in the culture wars, but he’s wary of sweeping Republicans into office on vague promises of fighting cancel culture and wokeness. “In a representative democracy, politicians are not elected to make us feel better about ourselves or to offer some kind of existential affirmation of our chosen way of life. Nor are they in office to attempt to define the nature and purpose of human existence or to debate first-order questions about natural law and morality,” he writes for The American Conservative. “Instead they are supposed to apply their minds to an ever-expanding number of prudential questions: What should tax rates be? Should we build more bridges? How about the minimum wage? … Validating your feelings is what you ask of a therapist or a kindergarten teacher. If this is all Republican voters actually want, they should schedule a telehealth appointment with someone more qualified than Dr. DeSantis. Otherwise, they should consider the distinct possibility that once again they are being had.”
The Federal Reserve is all but assured to begin hiking interest rates next month in an effort to rein in runaway inflation, and, although most economists would argue the move is necessary, it doesn’t come without risks. “The argument for moving swifter, sooner has been fueled in part by analogies with the era of Paul Volcker, who chaired the Fed from 1979 to 1987,” Daniel Moss writes for Bloomberg. “Volcker is rightly credited with reining in very high inflation. What’s sometimes glossed over is that he did so by engineering a deep recession. In hindsight, the ends appear to have justified the means. … Are today’s policy makers really prepared to generate this kind of downturn?”
National security columnist David Ignatius’ latest Washington Post piece provides some useful analysis on what Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish with his renewed appeal to diplomacy this week—fake or not. “Putin has given himself options with this tactical pause. He might extort enough concessions through negotiations to declare victory. Or he could manufacture a pretext—through Russia’s playbook of covert action—to justify launching the invasion, claiming that he had exhausted other possibilities,” he writes. “Putin had seemed convinced a month ago that his ever-intensifying war of nerves over Ukraine was working to Russia’s advantage. But White House officials believe this tactic might be backfiring: Some Russian officials are questioning Putin’s brinkmanship; and Western nations, unsettled by Russian bullying, are rallying around a NATO alliance that appeared depleted just two years ago. … The Kremlin chess master might have recognized that his most valuable assets are at risk—and that even with an intimidating opening, he probably can’t win a long match against a West that appears united against Russian aggression.”
Presented Without Comment
Also Presented Without Comment
Toeing the Company Line
On the site today, Mark Montgomery and Samantha Ravich of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation raise an unsettling prospect: If the U.S. responds to a Russian invasion of Ukraine with crippling economic sanctions, Russia is likely to counter with cyberattacks for which we are likely still unprepared.
In this week’s Capitolism (🔒), Scott Lincicome takes a look at the history of anti-dumping laws in the United States, and why tariffs on supposedly underpriced imports often end up backfiring. “Our most widely used ‘unfair trade’ law actually has little to do with ‘unfair trade’ at all,” he writes. “And almost everything to do with naked, costly protectionism.”
Klon Kitchen of the American Enterprise Institute joined Sarah and Steve on Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast for a discussion of the current Russia-Ukraine stand-off and U.S. national security more broadly. What should we make of the recent cyberattacks against Kyiv? Did the tepid response from the Obama administration to Russian aggression in 2014 embolden Putin? Why have some of the loudest voices on the right moved beyond principled non-interventionism to an embrace of Putin and other authoritarian regimes?
In light of everything going on up North, Wednesday’s G-File (🔒) focuses on the differences—and similarities—between Canada and the United States. “Canadian anti-Americanism—while at times strident among some radicals and intellectuals—was never profoundly ideological. It was cultural and oppositional,” Jonah writes. “But to the Canadians’ credit, their zagging, like our zigging, was constrained within the cultural confines of Anglosphere liberalism. It’s sort of like the rivalry between New Hampshire and Vermont. They do things differently, and I’m definitely on team New Hampshire, but it’s not like South Korea versus North Korea.”
Miss this week’s Dispatch Live? Never fear: Dispatch members can watch a replay of the event by clicking here.
Let Us Know
What do you make of the latest developments in the Durham investigation?
Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).