John Durham
John Durham, the special counsel was appointed under former President Trump to investigate the FBI's probing of Russian interference in the 2016 election Image Credit: Gulf News

The presidency of Donald Trump was like a gift that kept on giving to news reporters. By the hour, it seemed, some new scandal was unfolding in Washington, engulfing the White House, swirling around the former president, giving the administration a new speed wobble to navigate as it appeared driverless.

More than a year into the presidency of Joe Biden, things seem sedate now.

While many of the scandals were Trump-created, others followed with such regularity that it seems the Oval Office needed a plumber.

Now comes word that “Tech Executive-1” — a computer tech executive identified by the New York Times as Rodney Joffe — exploited his access to computer data at the White House to troll constantly for “derogatory information” about Trump during his four years in office.

The extraordinary revelation was made in a court filing by US Special Council John Durham, appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr in 2020, to probe the origins of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in Trump’s 2016 election victory.

Gosh, even the mention of Barr, a man who was at times inside the inner circle, or cast aside, depending on the direction the wind was blowing inside the Oval Office at any given moment.

From hero to zero

Barr was the hero in Trump’s eyes who redacted and defused much of Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he was the zero in Trump’s eyes who wouldn’t find the wherewithal to negate Biden’s victory in the 2020 contest. That was just too tall for Barr to join in.

But back to Durham, Barr’s appointee, who reported last Friday that alias Tech Executive-1, used his access to domain name system, or DNS, data to compile information about which computers and servers the White House servers were communicating with.

In simple terms every computer has a fingerprint, so too every other one it connects to over the internet. The physical building would give you the IP — Internet Protocol — or access point to the internet, the DNS would refer to the computer identity. Basically, if you have access to those fingerprints, then you know who’s talking to whom.

If there’s one thing we care to remember about Trump it’s that he has a way with words. Tremendous words. Bigly words. And the more hyperbole the better.

The Durham filing was met with suitable outrage and hyperbole, with the former president saying in a statement that the alleged spying was “the biggest story of our time, bigger than Watergate.”

Fox News, the television channel that was Trump’s own booster box, was equally filled with indignation. “They were spying on the sitting president of the United States,” Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, told the channel. “And it goes right to the Clinton campaign.”

Gosh, that’s bound to revive those “lock her up” chants. Hillary Clinton responded on Wednesday to the revelations that she hired people to spy on Trump, calling it ‘desperate’ and a ‘fake scandal.’

Parse Durham’s filing, and you’ll find it’s somewhat lacking in detail. It does not specify whether any of the data collection occurred while Trump was in office, nor does it allege that the content of any communications from the Executive Office of the President (EOP) or any parties were compromised or read. Nor is there any indication data collection went beyond identifying where the internet traffic came from and where it went.

Not bigger than Watergate

So, no, it’s not bigger than Watergate, not by a long shot. Richard Nixon may have been naive enough to have a reel-to-reel tape machine recording conversations from the West Wing. DNS-to-DNS data isn’t quite as salacious as hearing Nixon and his Chief of Staff plotting a cover-up of their party baggers breaking into the Watergate offices of the Democratic Party.

What’s important to remember is that while the DNS data might tell you what computers are talking to each other, the data does not reveal what was said.

The disclosure about Joffe, who has not been charged, came in a filing in the court case of Michael Sussmann, a lawyer whom Durham’s office charged in September in connection with allegations of lying about his relationship with the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

In the most recent filing, Durham alleges Tech Executive-1 gave Sussmann data about communications between computer servers at the Executive Office of the President (EOP), two Trump-owned buildings in New York and an unrelated medical firm with Russian-made mobile phones near the White House.

The Durham filing says Sussmann gave the data to an unnamed federal agency at a meeting on Feb. 9, 2017, less than three weeks into what by that was an already chaotic Trump administration. The filing says 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.”

“The Special Counsel’s Office has identified no support for these allegations,” the filing said.

Lawyers for Sussmann filed a response to Durham’s filing, in which they alleged the special counsel had attempted to create the impression that Sussmann had provided the CIA with data collected from the White House during Trump’s presidency — despite knowing that data given to the agency dated from the Obama administration.

This whole legal scandal seems all very incremental, lacking that “gotchya” moment that proves there was indeed a hugely significant domestic spying scandal underway during the Trump years No so. It’s all understated, much like Durham himself, who shuns any form of publicity.

According to Wikipedia, Durham is a native of Boston who worked for more than three years as a US District Attorney in Connecticut, previously spending 35 years working as an Assistant US Attorney in Washington. Scant details, then. Which seems about right given the insider nature of his latest work files.