Hobby Detectives Army of Investigators Has Trump in Its Sights

Americans have been riveted in recent months to every new detail coming out of the ongoing investigation into possible collusion by the Trump campaign. An army of amateur investigators has managed to uncover new developments in the case. Who are they and what drives them?

Robyn Twomey / DER SPIEGEL

By


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.

Obsessed

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.

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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.

"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.

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