The lure of the Russian smoking gun


There is a persistent belief among many Americans that there exists a piece of evidence that will, once and for all, prove that President Trump was aware that the Russian government hoped that he would win the presidency and, further, that he or his campaign encouraged and aided that Russian effort. That belief is informed by two things: the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the election and the surfeit of revelations that, looked at through the proper lens, indicate an awful lot of smoke masking an as-yet-unseen fire.

The result is that a lot of people are eager for any new bread crumbs that seem as though they might lead to clear proof of Trump’s collusion. And that, in turn, means stories that might serve as those bread crumbs tend to see a lot of traffic for the news outlets that write them.

On Tuesday afternoon, a new story at BuzzFeed seemed like it might find a place in the picture of Russian meddling. “Secret Finding,” the headline proclaimed, “60 Russian Payments ‘To Finance Election Campaign Of 2016.’ ” The quoted section of the headline referred to the memo fields of a wire transfer sent by the Russian government to the embassy in Washington. It was Aug. 3, and the embassy was being sent $30,000 earmarked for the “election campaign of 2016.”

BuzzFeed’s investigations editor pitched the story on Twitter.

So did BuzzFeed’s director of communications, highlighting the site’s news alert.

There was just one detail that didn’t warrant mentioning in the blurb or the alert . . . or even the story until the seventh paragraph: Russia, too, had an election last year, for its own legislative body. That election was held in mid-September, six weeks or so after the payment to the embassy in Washington.

BuzzFeed noted that it wasn’t only the U.S. Embassy that had received money. So, too, did embassies in countries as widespread as Afghanistan and Nigeria, with the last payments being sent two days after the election. After the Russian election, that is.

Why? A Russian journalist offered a possible explanation on Twitter.

The impression left by BuzzFeed’s promotion is that the money was being sent to fuel its efforts in the U.S. presidential election. The details sprinkled through the story suggest that the election being funded was its own.

Matt Mittenthal, BuzzFeed’s director of communications, defended the site’s publishing the story by noting, fairly, that it was breaking news that the FBI was investigating the payments. That detail, in the second paragraph, was reinforced by a quote from an anonymous FBI official: “We had an election and the intelligence community concluded Russia interfered in it. How could we not investigate a suspicious financial transaction that contained a memo that said, ‘finance election campaign 2016?’” It was a “good lead,” the agent said.

That said, the BuzzFeed story wasn’t sold to the public with the headline, “FBI investigating wire transfers.” Nor was the story sold with the predication that the “election campaign” was quite possibly not the American campaign. The possibility that it could be related to Russia’s own election is thrown out as one of several possible options.

“The note on this set of transfers does not indicate what election the money was to be used for, or even the country,” the story reads. “Seven nations had federal elections during the span when the funds were sent — including the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, on Sept. 18, 2016. Russian embassies and diplomatic compounds opened polling stations for voters living abroad.” Again, that possibility — maybe it had to do with their own election? — is in the seventh paragraph. The second paragraph includes this line: “That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election.”

Asked why BuzzFeed had focused so heavily on the implications in the United States, Mittenthal provided The Washington Post with a statement.

“Every tool used to promote this story quoted either directly from the Russian wire transfers, or came from well-sourced reporting,” it read. “Although no law enforcement source suggested that the money was for Duma elections, our reporters — including a Pulitzer Prize winner — made very clear that allegations involving the US election are still under investigation and not yet proven. As for the focus on the memo line regarding ‘2016,’ that is precisely what caught the attention of federal investigators, and therefore made perfect sense to feature prominently.”

It’s possible that the Russian government, hoping to seed an investment in its efforts to affect the U.S. presidential election, carefully distributed its payments to that end in a way to make it seem as though it was their own election being funded. Occam’s razor suggests that’s unlikely — Why not just send the money in some other way? Why not leave off the memo field? — but the possibility exists. BuzzFeed’s story doesn’t do much to suggest that this is the case, however.

There’s one other overlapping theory that will delight collusion-watchers. Included in the Steele dossier — yes, that dossier — are oblique mentions of a system that involves ” ‘pension’ disbursements to Russian émigrés living in US as cover, using consular officials in New York, DC and Miami.” At another point, there’s mention of setting up cash payments that could be made “quickly and discreetly” to the “cyber and other operators” who had worked on Russia’s efforts in the U.S. election. Neither of these allegations has been supported by evidence — and it’s not clear why Russia would try to secretly hack the United States and then correctly label the payments for its hackers.

The Russian meddling story is one of the biggest stories in U.S. politics and evidence of collusion would be one of the biggest stories in U.S. political history. Donald Trump is a deeply unpopular president who has created a marketplace for incriminating stories about him and his campaign. That can make the lure of pitching a story as being part of that smoking gun very hard to resist.

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