Maybe slow your roll on that one. Here is the counter-narrative — which, at first glance, looks more credible. The title of Charlie Savage’s news analysis at the New York Times is Court Filing Started a Furor in Right-Wing Outlets, but Their Narrative Is Off Track with a deck headline that reads: “The latest alarmist claims about spying on Trump appeared to be flawed, but the explanation is byzantine — underlining the challenge for journalists in deciding what merits coverage.”
When John H. Durham, the Trump-era special counsel investigating the inquiry into Russia’s 2016 election interference, filed a pretrial motion on Friday night, he slipped in a few extra sentences that set off a furor among right-wing outlets about purported spying on former President Donald J. Trump.
But the entire narrative appeared to be mostly wrong or old news — the latest example of the challenge created by a barrage of similar conspiracy theories from Mr. Trump and his allies.
Savage says that it’s complicated and requires “significant mental energy and time” to disentangle it all. But in short, Durham has brought a case against Michael Sussman, who was a Democrat-linked cybersecurity lawyer. Sussman had had a discussion with the CIA regarding “odd internet data suggesting that someone using a Russian-made smartphone may have been connecting to networks at Trump Tower and the White House, among other places.” Sussman had learned that from a tech executive whose company had been involved in maintaining servers for the White House, and Durham says that Sussman had “exploited this arrangement” by, as Savage puts it, “mining certain records to gather derogatory information about Mr. Trump.”
Here’s what conservative media did with that:
Citing this filing, Fox News inaccurately declared that Mr. Durham had said he had evidence that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had paid a technology company to “infiltrate” a White House server. The Washington Examiner claimed that this all meant there had been spying on Mr. Trump’s White House office. And when mainstream publications held back, Mr. Trump and his allies began shaming the news media.
“The press refuses to even mention the major crime that took place,” Mr. Trump said in a statement on Monday. “This in itself is a scandal, the fact that a story so big, so powerful and so important for the future of our nation is getting zero coverage from LameStream, is being talked about all over the world.”
There were many problems with all this. For one, much of this was not new: The New York Times had reported in October what Mr. Sussmann had told the C.I.A. about data suggesting that Russian-made smartphones, called YotaPhones, had been connecting to networks at Trump Tower and the White House, among other places.
The conservative media also skewed what the filing said. For example, Mr. Durham’s filing never used the word “infiltrate.” And it never claimed that Mr. Joffe’s company was being paid by the Clinton campaign.
Most important, contrary to the reporting, the filing never said the White House data that came under scrutiny was from the Trump era. According to lawyers for David Dagon, a Georgia Institute of Technology data scientist who helped develop the Yota analysis, the data — so-called DNS logs, which are records of when computers or smartphones have prepared to communicate with servers over the internet — came from Barack Obama’s presidency.
Basically, as I understand it, the cybersecurity company had “lawful access” to analyze non-private data from the White House and other places, and after the Russian hackings, they became concerned that some of that data suggested Russian-made phones were “in proximity to” Trump’s campaign and the White House.
Much of this is in the nature of a defense raised by someone accused of a crime. I’d take it with a grain of salt the way I take the allegations of the indictment. And there seems to be some disagreement between Durham and the cybersecurity people about the meanings and significance of their findings.
But what seems beyond dispute is that Durham himself has not alleged a) that the Clinton campaign paid the company examining the data, b) that the company “infiltrated” anything, or c) that the data was from the Trump era.
I have not read the filings to verify that, but that’s what Savage claims. And if he’s right, then the initial narrative floated by several entities — Fox News, Karen Townsend at Hot Air, and the Washington Examiner — appears to have been garbage.
I think all of this bears watching. But as we watch, let’s bear in mind this moral: beware stories that seem too good to be true.