In late October of 2016, Slate published an article claiming that there was some form of secret communication taking place between a server owned and operated by Alfa Bank, a server that had been frequently used for email marketing for the Trump Organization, and a server used by Spectrum Health (an organization chaired by Richard DeVos Jr. husband of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos).
The article claims that an anonymous cabal of cybersecurity firms and governmental security agencies keep a record of all global internet traffic metadata and that this cabal detected the alleged communication and began to share their findings with the on-line cybersecurity community.
The New York Times then published a story claiming that while the FBI had investigated the server, they could not confirm the nature of the communication or rule out an innocuous explanation for it.
There are a couple of difficulties in assessing the veracity of the Alfa Bank stories:
- The origin of the data itself.
While various cybersecurity experts have publicly concluded that the logs provided seemed to indicate some sort of secret communication, the original source of the logs remains anonymous. It is not inconceivable that the source may actually be a member of the intelligence community (most likely the NSA) and that the logs represent a form of disinformation.
- The nature of the traffic.
As the FBI concluded, it is possible that the traffic has an innocent explanation. Additionally, it is not unimaginable that this traffic could have been created intentionally by hackers to create the appearance of communication between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank.
There are two main references to Alfa Bank in the Mueller Report, derived from interviews with Petr Aven, the head of Alfa Bank:
- “According to Aven, at his Q4 2016 one-on-one meeting with Putin, Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank. Putin suggested that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.”
- “Aven instructed Richard Burt to make contact with the incoming Trump Administration.”
Mueller never addresses the question of the server communication in the report, but during his congressional testimony when asked about the issue he stated, “My belief at this point is it’s not true.”
On July 11th of 2018, Brian A. Benczkowski was confirmed 51-48 on partisan lines by the Senate for a position within the Justice Department. During his confirmation, he disclosed to the Senate that he had previously worked representing Alfa Bank for law-firm Kirland and Ellis as a private lawyer providing white-collar criminal defense. Benczkowski had also previously served on Trump’s transition team.
If, as he said in interviews with the Mueller Team, Aven was attempting to establish communication between Putin and the incoming Trump Administration, then it is certainly believable (although not stated in the Mueller Report) that Kirkland and Ellis could have been one of the channels pursued. Benczkowski would have potentially been a good conduit given his previous relationship with Jeff Sessions. It’s also reasonable to believe that communications between Kirkland and Ellis and Aven and Alfa Bank would have been considered privileged as attorney/client communications, explaining why Kirkland and Ellis is not mentioned anywhere in the Report.
Previously to being appointed Attorney General, William Barr also worked for Kirland and Ellis, although there is no publicly available information that suggests Barr directly worked with Alfa Bank. It’s not clear why this connection, which would have been public knowledge at the time, was not brought up as part of his confirmation.