The liberal think tank works to connect the dots at a rare moment when U.S. spooks have ‘their hair on fire way more than the political pundit class.’
Why is a think tank launching an investigative unit? “We live in unusual times,” says Adam Jentleson, CAP action fund’s senior strategic adviser. He has in his office a framed New York Times front page with the headline: “Putin led scheme to aid Trump, report says.”
It’s dated Jan. 7, 2017, and for Jentleson and his sidekick on the Moscow Project, Corey Ciorciari, who worked on the Clinton campaign, the report from the intelligence community was vindication after months of speculation that the FBI was investigating the Russia-Trump connection.
“Our opponents say this is sour grapes—the president says that with regularity. We would say Hillary and Harry Reid were right,” says Jentleson.
His boss at the time, Democratic leader Harry Reid, had fired off a letter to FBI Director James Comey on Oct. 31 basically accusing him of sitting on the Russia investigation, and demanding he make this “explosive information” public before the election on Nov. 8.
A third key player on CAP’s Moscow Project is Max Bergmann, a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff with expertise in arms control and international security. He told The Daily Beast, “This is the first time I’ve seen the national security community with their hair on fire way more than the political pundit class.”
He said national security professionals were quicker to wrap their heads around what was happening because they had seen this before. “This is the playbook Putin has run in other countries,” says Bergmann, notably in Ukraine and in Europe. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing. Russian officials gave speeches outlining how they were fighting an information war using online bots and disinformation on social media, and supporting groups on the right and the left who were sowing instability and doubt about democracy.
After Trump fired Comey last month, the Moscow Project posted a 7-minute video to YouTube that attempts to connect the dots between Trump real-estate ventures, Russian oligarchs, the 2013 Miss Universe contest in St. Petersburg, and Trump’s mention of WikiLeaks 164 times during the final month of the 2016 campaign. The video has been viewed almost 40,000 views.
The project is about to finalize the hiring of a Russian speaker and specialist, to follow the various oligarchs and use public documents to track who’s beholden to whom.
Trump’s financial dealings may be the most likely area to find potential illegalities. After he posted nearly a billion dollars in losses on his 1995 tax return, American banks wouldn’t lend him money. They called it “the Donald Risk.”
The video explains with lots of graphics how Trump is not the kind of guy who likes to sit on the sidelines. He went looking for money, and that’s where his finances intersect with Russian banks and oligarchs that are often just a degree or two of separation from Valdimir Putin.
A staff of five sifts through hundreds of tips that come in through the website, TheMoscowProject.org. They pass some along to reporters and carefully scrub what they put up on the website. “Vetting keeps us honest, so we’re not just promoting conspiracy theories,” says Jentleson. One tip helped unearth a 25-year-old newspaper article of Trump visiting Moscow in the early ’80s.
The entire dossier on Trump compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele is posted on the website. The staff went through it using public documents to note the parts that have been proven accurate versus those that remain questionable.
“I can’t remember any story this sprawling. We’ve been doing this for months, and we meet new characters every day,” says Jentelson, who describes CAP’s role as having the resources to be able to paint the bigger picture, and put all the disparate stories into some context.
When they first undertook the Moscow Project soon after the inauguration, it wasn’t as certain as it is today that the administration’s dealings with Russia would command so much attention. They just wanted to keep the story alive.
Now, it’s very much alive and they want to understand why Trump would be so pro-Russian when there is no political constituency for that position the way there is for his stand on trade or immigration, or even climate change.
“This is not about the election anymore,” says Ciorciari. No one campaign or political party even is behind the allegations. As a think tank, CAP has ties with the intelligence community, and understands how espionage works, “and there are lawyers and experts we can rely on,” he says, adding, “We work very collegially with The Washington Post and New York Times.”
There is something infectious about working on a big story, and learning how the Moscow Project operates is very much how journalism works. “It’s an incredible story and exciting, but also terrifying,” says Jentleson.
“What happened was very scary, and what continues to happen is very scary.”