Trump says special counsel filing proves Clinton spied on him. Is he right?

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Former President Donald Trump and his allies are saying that a recent court filing by Justice Department special counsel John Durham is proof that he was being spied on as a candidate in 2016 and later as president by people involved with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The 13-page filing lays out new evidence that Durham collected about the lengths to which Democratic operatives went to push the narrative to the FBI and the CIA that Trump was engaged in improper secret communications with the Kremlin while he was running for president.

But according to a leading cybersecurity expert, the highly technical filing — while raising some potentially troubling questions about the use of nonpublic government data for political purposes — does little to support Trump’s claim that his allegations of spying have been vindicated.

What was in the filing?

Donald Trump listens as Hillary Clinton answers a question
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at a presidential debate in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016. (Reuters/Rick Wilking/File)

The filing was made by Durham on Friday in a case involving Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer who has been charged with lying to the FBI by failing to disclose that he was working for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign during a key meeting that September with a senior bureau official.

Prosecutors allege that in September 2016, Sussmann brought then-FBI general counsel James Baker since-debunked allegations about a secret communications channel between the Trump Organization and the Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution owned by cronies of Vladimir Putin. Durham alleges that Sussmann told Baker he was not working on behalf of any client when he provided Baker with material about the supposed secret channel, when, according to the special counsel, he actually billed his work on the matter to Clinton's campaign. (Sussmann has denied the charges, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Washington, D.C., this spring.)

The allegations about a secret channel were widely discussed in the media before the 2016 election and touted by the Clinton campaign. But the FBI and Robert Mueller's investigation later concluded that no such secret channel had existed.

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In his filing, Durham said that an unnamed tech executive with government cybersecurity contracts exploited access to computer data at the Trump White House to find “derogatory information” about the president.

The tech executive — whom the New York Times identified as Rodney Joffe — used his access to domain-name system data to compile information about which computers and servers the White House servers were communicating with.

According to the filing, Joffe gave Sussmann data from computer servers at the Executive Office of the President, two Trump-owned buildings in New York and an unrelated medical firm in Michigan, and claimed the servers had connected with internet addresses “affiliated with a Russian mobile phone provider.”

Sussmann then gave the information to an unnamed federal agency — identified by the Times as the CIA — at a meeting on Feb. 9, 2017, less than a month after Trump took office. He claimed to the agency that the data “demonstrated that Trump and/or his associates were using supposedly rare, Russian-made wireless phones in the vicinity of the White House and other locations.” But Durham said his office “has identified no support for these allegations.”

What did Trump say about it?

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Trump and his supporters were quick to claim that the episode was proof of a broader smear campaign against the former president shortly after he took office.

In a statement released on Saturday, Trump said the filing “provides indisputable evidence that my campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign in an effort to develop a completely fabricated connection to Russia.”

The former president called it “a scandal far greater in scope and magnitude than Watergate” and suggested that those who were involved should be subject to criminal prosecution.

“In a stronger period of time in our country,” Trump added, “this crime would have been punishable by death.”

“They were spying on the sitting president of the United States,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Fox News on Sunday. “And it goes right to the Clinton campaign.”

“Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia,” read a headline on

However, Durham’s filing did not say that any communications such as text messages or emails were compromised, and there is no indication that data collection went beyond identifying where the internet traffic from the buildings mentioned in the court documents went.

What do cybersecurity experts think?

Former President Donald Trump
Trump in the Oval Office. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technology officer of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, said that the information Sussmann and Joffe were trying to mine from the servers was not the kind of content you would normally associate with spying, but it does raise concerns about whether the data was being improperly used for partisan purposes.

“[Domain-name system] traffic is not content,” Alperovitch said in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery” this week. “It’s just basically the internet’s address book, where when you want to try and access a website like Google or or something like that.”

But while you can’t see content by just looking at DNS traffic, you can see which websites were being accessed and which servers they were communicating with.

“There are definitely privacy issues associated with that, and it's not good that this data was being mined without permission,” Alperovitch said.

What’s next?

John Durham
Justice Department special counsel John Durham. (U.S. Department of Justice via AP)

Durham was appointed in 2020 by then-Attorney General William Barr to probe the origins of the FBI’s investigation of Russian election interference. His investigation has resulted in three indictments: Sussmann; Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst who contributed key research to the so-called Steele dossier, for allegedly lying to the FBI; and Kevin Clinesmith, who last year pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation for falsifying a claim that was used to maintain surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

The guilty plea was the first secured by Durham’s investigation.

Durham’s appointment as special counsel was extended by Attorney General Merrick Garland, and the probe is ongoing.