Over the course of this hemorrhaging artery of an election season, Donald Trump has been accused of nefarious dealings with Russia. And with good reason: the shrieking carbuncle in a red power tie that is—yes—still running for president has encouraged Russian hackers to spy on Hillary Clinton and has lauded president Vladimir Putin for his “leadership.” Now computer scientists have unearthed evidence that Trump may have also maintained a private server for exclusive communication with a Russian bank.
Slate’s Franklin Foer conducted a painstaking investigation into the means by which scientists uncovered this data and the extent to which it may be linked to the 2016 election. Currently, sufficient evidence does not exist to bring forth allegations. What evidence does exist, however, is impossible to brush aside.
In brief, an anonymous scientist referred to as Tea Leaves discovered that one server registered to the Trump Organization and two registered to Alfa Bank have been in communication. The Trump Organization server was created in 2009 for marketing purposes, but it no longer seems to engage in high levels of traffic. In fact, it has become apparent that these servers exclusively exchanged information with one another — that is to say, there were no communications with other entities.
“These organizations are communicating in a way designed to block other people out,” computer scientist L. Jean Camp told Slate.
Alfa Bank, helmed by Mikhail Fridman and Pyotyr Aven, does have dealings in the United States. LetterOne, one of the bank’s holding companies, invested $200 million in Uber this year and intends to commit $3 billion to United States health care. And by all accounts, Alfa Bank has not involved itself in shady business; it has even received an award for “Corporate Citizenship.” That said, Fridman and Aven do belong to Putin’s inner circle, albeit the perimeter. And Alfa Bank’s international success has, in the eyes of the Russian government, revealed the country’s business prowess and made it seem a more competitive contender.
The relationship between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank also seems connected to—or at least influenced by—the election. As scientists began to monitor activity between the servers, they noticed a trend.
“At election-related moments, the traffic peaked,” explained Camp. For instance, during both party conventions, there was considerably more communication.
Tea Leaves and his colleagues have attempted to grab the public’s attention with their findings, which led to the New York Times to contact Alfa Bank. Shortly thereafter, a peculiar thing happened: the Trump domain name ceased to operate. A few days later, on September 27, the Trump Organization registered a new host name, but as the media continued to pursue this seeming alliance, it fell out of use. It wasn’t long before the servers ended communication full stop.
Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization have both, unsurprisingly, denied any relationship with one another. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told Slate:
“The email server, set up for marketing purposes and operated by a third-party, has not been used since 2010. The current traffic on the server from Alphabank’s [sic] IP address is regular DNS server traffic—not email traffic. To be clear, the Trump Organization is not sending or receiving any communication from this email server. The Trump Organization has no communication with this entity or any Russian entity.”
The scientists’ evidence seems to contradict this statement, but at the same time, they cannot discern precisely what sort of activity took place between these servers. Though it points to “human-level communication,” the traffic cannot be assumed to be an email exchange — though cybersecurity researcher Richard Clayton surmises that email makes the most sense.
“I think mail is more likely, because it’s going to a machine running a mail server, and [the host] is called mail,” he remarks.
In the current cybersecurity climate, the evidence discovered by Tea Leaves seems extraordinarily significant. Trump has indicated that he favors Russia, from his disinclination to protect NATO allies from a Russian attack, to his campaign’s alleged demand that the GOP adjust its position on Ukraine so that it was more amenable to Russia.
And Russia, for its part, is suspected of hacking into Democratic National Committee emails, and into other voting systems in the U.S. Russian officials have even asked to be present at polling stations on November 8.
It’s not yet clear how the puzzle fits together, or where the trail of digital evidence leads. But it looks to be a grave matter.