It was late January 2017 when Jeff Jetton decided it was time to get involved in global affairs. Jetton is part owner of a Taiwanese ramen restaurant in Washington and he was on his way back to his apartment when he saw a group of young people shouting right-wing extremist drivel. A few blocks away, Donald Trump was just being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on the steps of the Capitol. Jetton saw laughing neo-Nazis and bigoted firebrands holding racist signs. It seemed as if these people had just been waiting for this moment. For this president.
Jetton was both furious by what he had seen and unsure how to respond. He wanted to do something to fight the hatred that was spreading from Washington right across the country. There must be some kind of antidote for this dangerous clown who had just moved into the White House, he thought to himself. "What's Trump's greatest weakness?" he found himself wondering. "Where are his vulnerabilities?"
A year later, Jetton walks into a café in northern Washington. The bearded 41-year-old is wearing jeans and a cap and he carefully sets his mobile phone down on the table as though it were an invaluable treasure. And in a way, it is. He has spent one and a half years single-mindedly searching for answers to the question as to whether Trump colluded with a foreign power in his election victory over Hillary Clinton. It is the biggest issue facing U.S. politics at the moment and Jetton has stored his greatest finds in his phone.
It doesn't take long before he offers up Donald Trump Jr.'s mobile phone number. And the private email address of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign aide. And even a number for Michael Cohen, Trump's lawyer.
It would be easy to dismiss Jetton as a nutcase, a zealot or a conspiracy theorist. But he's not. In the great expanse of the investigation into Russian meddling in the election, he is more of a citizen activist. A registered Democrat who doesn't want to simply leave everything up to the state and its institutions. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of people just like Jetton, people who dig up information that even journalists have missed. And they have a network of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of followers and supporters and they receive tips from everywhere. The expose dirt, educate the populace and mobilize others. They are doing their best to ensure that American society does not become indifferent.
Another of them is Seth Abramson, a university lecturer in New Hampshire. And Scott Dworkin, a Democrat Party activist in Washington. They along with Jetton have spent vast amounts of time on the investigation; they are, it seems fair to say, obsessed. They've never met each other in person, but they are united by their contempt for the president, the certainty that he has something to hide and the conviction that something can be done about it.
Through their work, Jetton, Abramson and Dworkin are helping satisfy a gigantic thirst for information and orientation. They're almost like dealers. Without them, people wouldn't know what Trump's lawyers think at night. Without them, pieces would be missing from the Russia puzzle. Without them, the whole affair would also be less entertaining.
For a year now, special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating possible collusion between Trump's election campaign and Russia. So far, 19 people have been charged, including four former Trump advisers and 13 Russians. The investigation is still ongoing and it remains unclear whether there was a master plan to collude with Moscow, and if there was, whether Trump was involved.
If so, it would be the ultimate conspiracy, the scandal of the century. A presidential candidate working with Moscow, the former archenemy, to manipulate the election. In addition to Robert Mueller, three congressional committees are also investigating, not to mention lawyers, journalists and think tanks.
Trump and his people view the whole investigation as a farce and claim that there has never been any collusion with Moscow. Trump repeatedly refers to the investigation as a "hoax" and a "witch hunt" on Twitter.
Jetton says of course the president is deeply involved in the whole Russian affair. But then his phone starts vibrating. On the other end of the line is a reporter from BuzzFeed who is looking for contact information for Felix Sater, a former business partner of Trump. Sater is one of the figures often at center stage in this tangled affair. He has known Trump for years and boasts that he arranged a visit to the Kremlin for his daughter Ivanka, during which she was allowed to sit on Vladimir Putin's chair.
Sater slipped into the Russian scandal in the form of an email he sent to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen at the end of 2015. In it, Sater wrote that he wanted to sway the election in Trump's favor with the help of Cohen and Putin. "I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this," he wrote. Today, the email is considered to be just one of many pieces of evidence showing the degree to which politics, money and business became blurred among those close to Trump during the campaign.
"I'll send him a message," Jetton tells the BuzzFeed reporter. Three minutes later, he gets a text message from Sater on his mobile phone. "Felix and I are friends," says Jetton, smiling pleasantly. They use encryption for their communications and they recently met up in Los Angeles. Jetton holds up his phone. You can read everything, he says. The messages do in fact read as though he and Sater know each other well.
'Pretty Juicy Stuff'
Describing himself, Jetton says he has three strengths. First, he's a nice guy who is quick at connecting with people and is a good listener. Second, he's a good strategist. Third, he likes to solve complex tasks. But he leaves out his fourth strength: He's a master at stoking unrest.
Speaking by phone, Sater says he finds Jetton entertaining. He also says he's a force who has to be taken seriously. "He's a nice guy," he says. "I was impressed by how Jeff managed to uncover more than professional journalists."
Jetton sees himself as being both a disseminator and a source of news. From the very start, he has helped journalists with contacts and provided them with tips. In a hacker forum on the internet, he stumbled across data containing thousands of stolen text messages from a daughter of Paul Manafort, a member of Trump's campaign team. "It's pretty juicy stuff," says Jetton. He browsed the text messages until he came across the phone number of a woman who was supposedly Manafort's mistress. He called her.
"We spent hours on the phone," he says. "She told me that she met with oligarchs in Ukraine with Manafort. She told me that Paul told her she should throw her phone in the ocean. She once worked for Tom Barrack, one of Trump's close allies, but she got fired," he says. A spokesman for Paul Manafort declined to comment on the matter when contacted.
The deeper Jetton delves into it, the angrier he gets. In September, he sent an email to one of Trump's lawyers in which he wrote: "You're a monster." To Jetton's surprise, he received an answer: "Dude, U have no clue. I walked away from $4 million annually to do this" job. They exchanged further messages and a number of newspapers would later spend days quoting from the mails.
Jetton does what he can, but sometimes he gets the impression that it's not enough. Nothing is happening. It seem like it's impossible to get rid of Trump.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2018 (May 26th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
"Fucking clown," he says.
Putin's operation to disrupt the presidential election began back in the summer of 2014, when Russia dispatched two spies to scope out the situation in the U.S. They traveled with cameras from Nevada through California and then back to New York via Illinois and Michigan in their quest for vulnerabilities they and others could exploit. Later, during the election campaign, Russian hackers placed ads on Facebook that had been made to look as if they came from American sources. And they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee that WikiLeaks published on the eve of the election.
Evidence of Ties
There is plenty of evidence of ties between people close to Trump and Russia, including the messages from businessman Felix Sater to Trump attorney Cohen. There was also a meeting between Trump adviser George Papadopoulos and a Russian Foreign Ministry contact in London. There is the FBI suspicion that the Russians maintained another adviser as a source. There are Paul Manafort's ties to Russian oligarchs. And then, of course, there's the meeting Manafort, Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner had with a Moscow lawyer who promised she had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. "If it's what you say, I love it," Donald, Jr. wrote in an email that is now on the public record.
In other words, there's a high probability that there was a coordinated effort between the Trump campaign and Russia. But what if all that isn't enough? What if nothing is ultimately done about it? What if a conspiracy took place, but there are no consequences?
Seth Abramson plops down into his office chair and says he will do whatever he can to ensure that Americans don't lose interest in the case. The problem is that the affair has grown far too complicated for people. "This is the most complex, far-reaching federal investigation of my lifetime," he says. "There's a tsunami of information."
Who is even able to process, analyze and grasp all the daily revelations? Who's keeping track of this constant barrage of tens of thousands of clues?
"Me," says Abramson.
His office is located on the fourth floor in Room 447 at the University of Manchester in New Hampshire. Abramson teaches creative writing, English and journalism as an assistant professor. His desk is mostly empty aside from his laptop. His weapon.
It's a Friday afternoon, the halls are quiet and most of the students are at home. From his window, Abramson has a view out onto the sparkling Merrimack River, which flows along Interstate 293. Abramson wears a flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots and he looks more like the outdoorsy type than a professor. A jacket, shirt and tie hang on a coat rack next to the desk just in case CNN calls again.
Since Trump's inauguration, Abramson has come to be regarded as one of the best-informed specialists on the investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election. It helps that Abramson only has to teach three courses a week. "I'm not on campus that often," he says. He has a half-million followers on Twitter, a figure almost as large as the total print run of The New York Times. "I get dozens of tips every day," he says.
Whereas Jeff Jetton represents the boots on the ground, Seth Abramson does the explaining. He serves as a guide to the galaxy of information pertaining to the case. He opens up his laptop and pulls up Twitter. Abramson's specialty is firing off a series of tweets in rapid succession, threads that stretch up to 50 messages long and more. His longest thread to date was over 220 individual tweets, a combined missive that took Abramson hours to write. He composes his tweets in real time at a feverish pace.
At the end of April, the House Intelligence Committee published two reports on the Russia affair. Abramson downloaded the documents and immediately began typing on the keyboard.
11:22 p.m.: "Yesterday I discussed all the bombshell revelations deeply damaging to Trump in the Majority (Republican) Report. But there are just as many in the HPSCI Minority (Democrats') Report."
11:55 p.m.: "Did I mention that *Putin himself* was in Athens during Papadopoulos' second May 2016 trip there, and Papadopoulos met with the *same people* Putin did?
12:12 a.m.: "So Don Jr., Manafort, and Kushner weren't *blind-sided* by the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting" with the Russian lawyer in June 2016. "It was the culmination of 3 months of work, in Italy and the UK and Greece."
4:15 a.m.: "In sum, the Kremlin made advances to the Trump campaign; the Trump campaign expressed a willingness to talk; a meeting was held at which the Trump campaign confirmed it would look at sanctions post/election; the Kremlin began helping Trump; Trump offered help back. A conspiracy."
4:49 a.m.: "(PS) I'll say this: when I consider that Mueller has (say) 400%+ more information than we do, it boggles the mind how anyone involved in the Trump Administration sleeps at night."
Abramson draws connections between his data like an astronomer in a planetarium, linking points of light in the sky into constellations. Papadopoulos in Athens, Putin's trip to Greece in the same month, Russian donations to the U.S. arms lobby - it's all connected for Abramson. His premise: Something stinks. Badly.
It took Abramson five hours to compose the thread, during which time he received 96 messages, thousands of retweets and likes as well as hundreds of comments. His most read threads get retweeted as many as 50,000times.
The gist of his theory is that Trump expected money and good deals from the Russians, so he made foreign policy concessions during the election campaign. Putin wanted sanctions against Russia to be relaxed. Trump wanted to win the election. The strange affinity Trump has with Putin is based on a deal, says Abramson: The Russians have been nice to him, so he's nice back to them.
'I'm Worried About My Country'
Abramson went to law school and, even as a young defense attorney, he tended to side with those who couldn't afford expensive law firms. He says the rich and powerful have advantages in the U.S. justice system. Those who have money, win. That, though, is what he is hoping to prevent this time.
He says he actually appreciates the solitude that comes along with the work. Waiting for him at home is a girlfriend and two dogs named Scout and Quinn. If he has to, he'll drive to the office at midnight to give Skype interviews to the BBC. In his spare time, he reads comics and tends to his extensive Lego collection. He says his popularity underscores how dramatically journalists are failing at the moment in explaining to their audiences what the scandal is really about.
Abramson is a quintessential American figure: an underdog who became an involuntary hero. Some claim he's merely tying to force his way into the media spotlight for the money, an accusation he denies. Sometimes, he asks for donations.
He takes a sip from a bottle of water. "What annoys me most is when other people think I enjoy this," he says. "That's crazy. I'm worried about my country. I'm not doing well. I sleep badly." So far, he has sent out more than 30,000 tweets. He just can't pull away from the story. He's a prisoner of Russia and a hostage of Trump.
"But I have to keep on going," Abramson says. "I can't turn away from it."
In that sense, he's much like the rest of his country. America can't seem to get enough of the affair - people have an unquenchable thirst for revelations, facts and new details. It is quite amazing that people are not turning away, overwhelmed by the flood of information. On the contrary: Each detail seems to feed the addiction to new developments. And with the information being dispensed on the web, the dealers are offering their wares for free.
The constant bombardment with numbers, dates and names has plunged the country into a state of hyperactive stimulation, like an overdose of sugar and caffeine, and the dealers bear part of the responsibility. Meanwhile, the political camps are drifting further and further apart. Trump haters see the Russia affair as the conspiracy of the century, bigger than Watergate. Trump fans, meanwhile, view it as the greatest witch hunt in world history.
At the beginning of the affair, most amateur detectives were convinced that all it would take was enough information to get rid of Trump. But if the past year has shown one thing, it's that facts are not a threat to this president. Scott Dworkin says research and reporting alone is no longer enough and that a fight is needed. "I help lead the resistance," he says.
Sitting at home on his sofa, Dworkin looks tired. He often works nights. And his girlfriend just dumped him, Dworkin says, grimacing as if to convey: It was inevitable. Collateral damage. A photo showing him with Barack Obama during the peak of the 2012 election campaign hangs on the wall. A long, long time ago. The apartment looks as though he's just passing through.
He asks that the exact location of his Washington home not be divulged. He receives death threats - hundreds in the past year - but it neither disturbs nor surprises him. There's a war going on, he says. "You're gonna get hit hard and you have to eat it." One of the more painful attacks was directed at his finances, when a website reported he had enriched himself through the resistance, a claim he denies. He taught his parents how to communicate with him without being monitored.
Dworkin works as a researcher and adviser for the Democratic Coalition initiative, which has ties to the Democratic Party. He has spent the past year and a half going after the people involved in the Russian affair and he is one of the most restless agitators. A few days after the presidential election, he published a multi-page compendium of articles, links and videos that he claimed proved Trump's ties to Russia. He called the document "The Dworkin Report."
Dworkin is a nocturnal creature - a hunter, not a gatherer. He wears a black T-shirt, sneakers and shorts, and as soon as he walks outside, he puts on large sunglasses as if he can no longer stand daylight. In the Russia affair, he's the one hiding in ambush. "My middle name is Bulldog," he says. "Did Trump collude with Russia? Absolutely."
And it's not curiosity that keeps this bulldog digging - it's sheer pugnacity. The Democratic Coalition has 560 volunteers, with liaisons in each state, a network that needs to be provided with ammunition. The activists are Dworkin's army - they propagate his message and disseminate his findings.
The week before last, he decided to make the #TrumpColluded hashtag popular on Twitter. He "pushed it," as he puts it. He fired off messages to his helpers and posted public messages on Twitter almost by the minute. At times, #TrumpColluded ranked in the Top 20 most-used hashtags around the world. Dworkin says this helps keep attention focused on the scandal, and it also motivates his people.
In addition, he recently launched his own podcast, the Dworkin Report, which he produces in his study. He bought the carpet for the new studio on Amazon for $45.
He boots up the computer and clicks the record button. "Hello there, fellow resistors," Dworkin says into the microphone. On this particular day, the podcast is about an informant within Trump's campaign team who is said to have provided the FBI with information on the Russia affair. Dworkin says: "I believe we will see more charges from Mueller in the next few days, possibly against co-conspirators in the United States."
When sitting at the microphone, Dworkin has a knack for spinning just about anything into a major scandal. He doesn't do small. Escalation is, of course, a rhetorical tool, and yet there's something slightly disturbing about the relentlessness with which Dworkin drums out his facts.
Unlike Jeff Jetton and Seth Abramson, he actually is making money on the Russia affair. The Democratic Coalition raised almost $500,000 last year and has a monthly budget of $30,000. Dworkin uses the money to pay lawyers, himself and the other researchers. They also place advertisements and book billboards.
Dworkin says the Russia election meddling affair is the perfect scandal, possibly even better than #MeToo. A good researcher can always find new clues. Dworkin dug up photos on the web of Trump's son at a Russian real estate conference, he discovered an office address belonging to Paul Manafort in Russia, he came across pictures of Trump with the Russian multimillionaire Aras Agalarov - all evidence to back the theory that the Trumps are dangerously close to the Russians. "Sometimes I wonder: Why am I the only one seeing this?" he says.
Dworkin's war is being waged online - on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and podcasts - but also offline in election campaigns for seats in the House and the Senate. A measure of success is when one of his tweets is retweeted 30,000 times. Or when The New York Times writes about one of his finds, as in the case of a party honoring the Russian ambassador to the U.S. that was sponsored by Trump's winery in Virginia. But will any of this ultimately have any real consequences?
Jetton, Abramson, and Dworkin all set out in the hopes that Trump, too, will eventually have to succumb to the facts. So far, though, nothing has been able to stop him.
Jetton has concluded that the means need to be changed. It's a sunny morning in New York when he begins the next phase of the resistance. His target is a Wall Street financial institution that has been doing business with Trump and his family for years, despite all the scandals. Jetton ordered a bunch of old rouble bills, an allusion to Russia, and a rubber devil mask on eBay.
He pulls the mask over his face and walks along Wall Street: Satan with a briefcase. He grunts and then enters the branch of Germany's Deutsche Bank.