The month of October gave us multiple election shockers, from the Donald Trump Access Hollywood video to FBI director James Comey’s announcement on Friday that there are more Hillary Clinton emails under investigation — and they involve none other than Anthony Weiner. But since the 2016 election is all about extremes, on the final night of the month there were multiple last-minute “October surprises” about Trump’s ties to Russia, with varying levels of sexiness (we mean that metaphorically and, sadly, literally).
While accusing Comey of potentially breaking the law on Sunday night, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid alleged that the FBI is sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.” Reid has been known to make wild accusations close to an election, but apparently this one was (sort of) true. According to the New York Times, the FBI spent much of the summer investigating the many allegations regarding Trump’s ties to Russia. The wide-reaching probe, which is reportedly ongoing, looked at his advisers, his financial activities, and the hack of Democratic officials, but so far it has not turned up proof that Trump is in cahoots with Vladimir Putin. Per the Times:
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
Intelligence sources told the Times that Trump aides’ alleged Russian affiliations are what initially prompted them to open the investigation. Part of the probe involves former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who worked for Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned in August amid allegations that he helped Ukraine’s pro-Russian political party lobby the U.S. government without disclosing his role, which is illegal. Hours before the Times piece was published, NBC News reported that the FBI is conducting a “preliminary inquiry” into Manafort’s overseas business activities, but it has “not blossomed into a full-blown criminal investigation.”
Manafort has maintained that he has never had ties to Putin or his government, and in a statement to NBC he dismissed the allegations as “Democratic propaganda.” “None of it is true,” he said of NBC’s report. “There’s no investigation going on by the FBI that I’m aware of.”
In August and September, congressional leaders were briefed on potential financial ties between Russia and people in Trump’s orbit, according to the Times. That discussion included a computer back channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. In one of the night’s other big reveals, Slate’s Franklin Foer posted a complex report on how computer scientists investigating Russia’s alleged election hacking accidentally discovered the link between Trump’s business and one of Russia’s largest banks.
Foer’s conclusion was that it’s unclear why servers at Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization were communicating with each other, “but it deserves further explanation.” However, the Times threw cold water on the story, reporting, “The F.B.I. ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
The Trump campaign and Alfa Bank denied having any business dealings. The bank said it had hired the cybersecurity company Mandiant, and their “working hypothesis” is that the activity was caused by “a spam attack targeted at Alfa Bank by a marketing server, which triggered security software.
If mysterious functions of the domain name system do not qualify as a thrilling October surprise, Mother Jones’s Monday night report on spies and Russian sabotage more than makes up for it. David Corn talked to a former senior intelligence officer who specialized in Russian counterintelligence for a Western country. The former spy says he recently gave the FBI memos, based on his talks with Russian sources, that claim the Russians have been grooming Trump for years. Per Mother Jones:
The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer’s conversations with Russian sources, noted, “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.”
The ex-spy says the FBI asked him for more information in August, and he’s continued to share information with the bureau. “It’s quite clear there was or is a pretty substantial inquiry going on,” he says.
An even more sensational rumor sprung from this report as journalists speculated on how Trump may have been “compromised”:
Monday’s various revelations fed into a narrative the Clinton campaign and Democratic allies had been pushing hard all day: that she is the victim of a “blatant double standard” when it comes to FBI disclosures. Comey provided extensive updates on the Clinton email investigation, yet he refused to confirm that the FBI was investigating Trump’s ties to Russia during testimony before Congress in September. Furthermore, on Monday, CNBC reported that Comey was so sensitive about revealing information that could influence the election that he successfully argued against including the FBI in a statement that said the “U.S. intelligence community” was confident that Russia was behind the hacks of Democratic officials.
Speaking of the hacks, the Times says that federal investigators now believe Russia’s goal was “to disrupt the integrity of the political system and undermine America’s standing in the world more broadly,” not to aid Trump’s campaign. That sparked disagreement over whether there’s any difference between the two goals.
Others say there’s already ample reason to be concerned about Trump’s ties to Russia — and it has nothing to do with claims made by shadowy intelligence sources. Vox’s Matt Yglesias said he’s more interested in Trump’s stated policies toward Russia than theories about what motivated them.
Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall agreed, saying Trump’s relationship with Russia should be a huge issue for voters, even without Monday night’s barrage of allegations:
… if Russia has coopted or cultivated or compromised Trump that is a threat of the highest order. I can’t go on the word of an unnamed retired spy whose identity we don’t know, whose motives we can’t interrogate and whose evidence we can’t see. But I don’t think I need additional evidence. What’s been in plain sight for weeks, actually months, is more than enough to ring every alarm bell. And yet, with all the hints and arch remarks about Russia, the alarms have barely been rung.