When Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller finally testified this summer, one of the few substantive revelations he made about something not specifically addressed in his final report involved a long-pedaled allegation that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had a secret communications network through a computer server at Russia’s Alfa Bank.
“I believe it’s not true,” Mueller testified when questioned by Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, confirming in public what FBI officials had privately told me and other reporters going back to late 2016.
We now have strong evidence that one of the events that gave life to that conspiracy theory was an Oct. 11, 2016 visit by the British intelligence operative Christopher Steele to the State Department, where the author of the now infamous anti-Trump dossier met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec.
Just a few days after the visit, Kavalec forwarded a document to FBI official Stephen Laycock on Oct. 13, 2016 as a followup to her contact with Steele that offered significant detail about the Alfa Bank theory based on unexplained pings between a server at the bank and one used by the Trump organization on the East Coast.
You can read the document here.
“Network logs show a distinctively human pattern of communications between a hidden server dedicated for use by the Trump Organization and the Russian financial company Alfa Bank, which has close ties to the Kremlin,” the document Kavalec forwarded to the FBI stated.
The memo also stated that after a New York Times reporter contacted Alfa Bank about the pings, the “hidden server belonging to Trump then disappears.” It added “no one but Alfa Bank was asked.” The document said people seeking more information on the allegations could contact a well known online computer expert who goes by the name Tea Leaves.
I obtained a copy of the original document Kavalec was provided. A second version of the memo — which was marked up with comments casting doubt on the veracity of the allegations — remains under tight hold at the Justice Department as prosecutors examine possible misconduct in the now-closed Russia probe.
Congressional investigators who have investigated the Kavalec-Steele meeting believe the Alfa Bank memo was downloaded from an Internet file server known as Mediafire and provided to Kavalec either by Steele or his longtime contact inside the State Department, Jonathan Winer.
State Department emails show Kavalec asked Winer to help retrieve a document starting on Oct. 12 based on what had been discussed in the meeting with Steele a day earlier.
“Thanks for bringing your friend by yesterday,” Kavalec wrote Winer, referring to Steele. “It was very helpful. I’ll be interested to see the article you mentioned.”
Investigators who have seen the redacted version of Kavalec’s transmission of the memo to the FBI say it clearly indicates Steele was involved in discussing the Alfa Bank allegations.
Steele’s own dossier shows he began investigating Alfa Bank connections to the Kremlin about a month before the meeting with Kavalec, penning a memo dated Sept. 14, 2016 entitled “Russia/US Presidential Election: Kremlin-Alpha Group Co-Operation.” Steele misspelled the bank’s name but suggested in the dossier it could be an avenue for Putin to influence the election. Alfa Bank long has denied any collusion and even sued Steele unsuccessfully for defamation
Whether Steele or Winer first provided the computer pings document, the theory soon became political fodder for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that was hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee to find dirt on Trump and Russia and which employed both Steele and and another Russian researcher named Nellie Ohr, the wife of a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr.
In a December 2016 meeting with Bruce Ohr, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson pedaled the Alfa Bank rumor again, information that Ohr subsequently provided to the FBI. Simpson told Ohr that a New York Times article dismissing the Alfa Bank theory was wrong, according to Ohr’s own notes.
“The New York Times story on Oct. 31 downplaying the connection between Alfa servers and the Trump campaign was incorrect,” Simpson was quoted as saying. “There was communication and it wasn’t spam.”
Separately, former FBI general counsel James Baker told Congress last year he received similar allegations about Alfa from a DNC lawyer named Michael Sussman and provided it to agents in the Russia case in late summer or early fall 2016.
As early as next week, the Justice Department inspector general will release his report on the FBI reliance on the Steele dossier to secure a FISA warrant authorizing the Russia probe’s surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page at the end of the 2016 election.
It is widely expected that Steele’s meeting with Kavalec will be cited in that report, possibly as a red flag missed by the FBI or DOJ before approving the FISA.
One thing is for certain. The now debunked conspiracy theory about Alfa Bank and Russia collusion was given life through Steele’s contact at State, fanned by career bureaucrats and the Fusion GPS firm.
It’s the sort of tale that makes some believe there is — or at least was — a “deep state” trying to influence the 2016 election.