Why Everyone Is Talking About Donald Trump and Russia

November 2nd 2016

Lucy Tiven

On Monday, Twitter was set ablaze by a report suggesting that servers associated with Donald J. Trump's private organization were communicating with a Russian bank.

Slate contributing editor Franklin Foer chronicled alleged communications between the Trump Organization server and Russia-based Alfa Bank.

Foer communicated with an anonymous group of computer scientists who flagged the server activity as suspicious. He suggested the server could be delivering secret messages to the bank. These emails might expose ties between the Republican presidential nominee and Russian financial interests or the Russian government, the piece theorized.

Respected computer scientist John Vixie lends credence to Foer's theory. In the piece, he's quoted as saying, "The parties were communicating in a secretive fashion. The operative word is secretive. This is more akin to what criminal syndicates do if they are putting together a project.”

However, other cybersecurity experts questioned the piece on Twitter and in blog posts.

There's a much simpler explanation for the server activity than the exchange of secrets between Trump and Russia, information technology consultant Naadir Jeewa asserted on both Twitter and Medium. Instead, what was presented as secret server link actually appeared to be an email marketing system spamming a bank employee who had stayed at a Trump hotel.

Jeewa laid out the situation, as he saw it, in a series of tweets:

On Medium, Jeewa looked into Alfa Bank's server infrastructure and concluded that it appeared to be checking if for spam.

The way email systems function and the problems that befall them "seems to indicate system malfunction as the most plausible explanation," he writes.

“Amongst the security researchers online, the growing consensus is that the email server had malware on it and kept spamming the Alfa Bank server with emails,” Jeewa told ATTN: over email.

“My problem with the article, and why I called it out as garbage is because the way they describe standard industry practice as allegedly nefarious behavior,” he explained.

“There's no indicator that Trump or his campaign would ever have had access to the server," Jeewa said.

Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told Slate: "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 communications from this email server."

These critiques support a statement provided by Alfa Bank and an alleged FBI review reported by the New York Times hours later.

The bureau allegedly looked at the server and "concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts," the Times reports. (The FBI declined to comment to the Times Monday.)

Foer, who also conceded in his original article that there could be a non-nefarious reason for the server link, tweeted Tuesday that he is writing a follow-up piece.

The FBI investigation into potential Russian interference remains ongoing but is not focused on Trump specifically, the Times reports.

The report arrived after a flurry of outcries from Democrats for the FBI to release information on Trump's ties to Russia, as Politico reports. According to the Times, the bureau has been investigating potential Russian election interference since the summer. The bureau is focused on the possibility of an election day hacking attempt and ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's ties to Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet states, the Times reports.