Tuesday, November 1, 2016, 8:00am

On Trump, email servers, Russian spies and other dubious election shenanigans.

Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore. (Source & Credits.)

Mother Jones and Slate both dropped big stories about Donald Trump yesterday that tore up Twitter for a bit.

So, basically, the story goes that Russia compromised Donald Trump with a fugly sex tape, and have been aiding him in his presidential run in an attempt to delegitimize US politics and elections. As partial proof, there’s this Trump Organization email server that’s been talking exclusively and secretively with a Russian bank with ties to Putin. A server that, notably, disappeared from the Internet when the New York Times started sniffing around the story.

Does that sound a bit conspiracy theory-ish to you? That’s because it’s kind of a conspiracy theory.

As an exercise in how to judge the news, here’s how I found this story. I was pretty busy yesterday and still recovering from the Deathly Plague of 2016, so I didn’t see any news until Monday evening. By then, Left Twittersville was all het up over the story. “Donald Trump is a Russian spy, OMG!,” they were saying.

I was like, “This seems hyperbolic. Who’s reporting this?” So, first I checked my Twitter list of mostly sensible lefties to see what they had to say. The general opinion over there boiled down to “Well, I’m not positive, but this seems shady enough to bear watching.” Ok, that’s reasonable. Step two is to find out what the source of the story is. Which papers are reporting this?

The Russia/Trump/Email Server story came from Slate and Mother Jones, both of whom sit firmly on my “Worth keeping an eye on, but keep a grain of salt handy” list of news sources. Mother Jones has done some very good reporting in the past, but they’re hella left-biased. Slate has also done some good work before, but they’re prone to histrionics. So… these are not the worst sources, but they’re also not the best, either. Let’s see… who else has the story? Well, there’s the New York Times, a paper of obvious repute. Let’s see what they have to say.

Oh. Huh.

But see, journalists? In general? Not great at science-y, technical, infosec-type stuff. And this is an infosec story. And I have a burgeoning infosec list on Twitter, too. It’s pretty new, so I wouldn’t exactly call it solid, yet, but I’m working on it. So what did they have to say?

The opinion over there is, bluntly, “This is probably bullshit.”

So what we have here is a story that looks large and scandalous at first blush, but, with investigation, starts to fall apart at the seams. There might be a grain of truth here, but there are too many anonymous sources involved, and too many smart people raising a skeptical eyebrow. The email server portion of this story has to be filed under “Conspiracy Theory,” no matter how much anyone wishes it were true.

Which leaves the spy network portion of the story, something with a little more legs under it. Not a lot more, but some. Again, this story is being reported in a somewhat dubious paper, and it’s relying on anonymous sources. But we also know that Russia is definitely invested in the 2016 election. That much is a fact. But when it comes to Russia deliberately using Donald Trump to do so… things get a lot fuzzier. The story being told here is all sex tapes and spies and bugged phones and junk – it’s Jason Bourne, 007 stuff, and I think you kind of have to discount that too, barring solid evidence.

So what it boils down to is that Russia definitely wants to diddle the US elections. They’d love to disrupt and delegitimize the whole process. Doing so would help make them stronger on the world stage at a time when they badly need to be stronger because the truth is, Russia ain’t doing so well. They’re kind of a mess over there. And they only way they have to make themselves a more formidable world player is to drag everyone else – including the US – down. Everything after that truth is only chaff that’s helping Russia accomplish their goal of diddling the election.

Here’s some related reading, an excellent editorial from Josh Marshall of TPM, on the subject: Russia’s Cold Decrepit Hand. Vox also has an excellent write-up on the brouhaha: Forget conspiracy theories. This is why Trump’s Russian connection is actually a problem.

Meanwhile, overnight, new big news broke: the GOP is about to be in some trouble over voter suppression, poll watching, and voter intimidation. You can read more about that here and here.

Also, while we were all busy watching the Trump/Russia/Email Server thing, the New York Times dropped another tax story on Trump, detailing his use of a “legally dubious” method of getting out of taxes. Read it here.

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