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The key to the Trump-Russia scandal? Follow the data

For all the fuss about Donald Trump Jr.'s emails, a bombshell report about an investigation into possible collusion between Trump's Kushner-led data operation, a Russian "fake news" squad and a hedge fund billionaire may be the real key to the Trump-Russia scandal.

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Trump, sit in the front row in East Room of the White House on June 5, 2017.
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Trump, sit in the front row in East Room of the White House on June 5, 2017.Read moreCarolyn Kaster / AP

They were just three words — not even uttered in real life but in a Hollywood movie — that nevertheless came to define American politics over the last 40-plus years. "Follow the money." That's what the fictional portrayal of the whistleblower "Deep Throat" told Bob Woodward in the 1976 movie version of "All the President's Men" was the key to tracing the real roots of the Watergate scandal — follow the flow of illegal campaign money into Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign…who it came from and where it was going. It turned out, of course, that the money from favor-seeking millionaires paid for illegal bugging, break-ins and other dirty tricks, and Nixon became the first and only president to resign in disgrace (so far). Despite that, the role of money in propelling political power in America grew only stronger.

Now it's 2017 and things have changed. Money is still important, and more dark money flows into our politics than ever before. But that's because money helps campaigns buy the real source of political power: Knowledge. And in the computer era, knowledge means data: Where to find your voters, how to reach them, what to tell them that will guarantee they turn out to vote for your candidate … or how to make the other side stay home.

If there was a Deep Throat in the Trump-Russia scandal, this is what he'd be telling today's Woodwards and Bernsteins:

Follow the data.

With all the drama over this week's bombshell disclosures of Donald Trump Jr.'s emails and a previously unknown Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials and a woman who'd been pitched to them as "a Russian government lawyer," there was another investigative report that arguably could have equal or greater significance in the ongoing probes of wrongdoing in the 2016 campaign. It said probers are now taking a much closer look at possible cooperation between Russia — which had an operation to churn out "fake news" about Hillary Clinton during the fall campaign  — and the Trump campaign's data operation.

The campaign's data effort was overseen by President Trump's son-in-law and arguably his closest adviser, Jared Kushner. Here's what the McClatchy News Service reported Wednesday:

Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign's digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia's sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump's campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump's digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

The Washington Post also took a deep dive into the important of the "fake news" blitz in helping bring out Trump's surprise victory in November.

In October of last year, Bloomberg News reported that the campaign's digital arm, run by Brad Parscale, would target possible Hillary Clinton voters for an inverse pitch. The Trump campaign would not show them ads making the case for voting for Trump; instead, they showed videos that they hoped would dampen enthusiasm for Clinton — and get the voters to stay home.

[A] young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he'd created of Clinton delivering the "super predator" line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: "Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators." The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook "dark posts" — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, "only the people we want to see it, see it."

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia back in May questioned how the Russian fake-news-spreaders knew which voters to contact. He said: "When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play … It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that "Hillary Clinton's sick" or "Hillary Clinton's stealing money from the State Department."

It's fascinating: Most of the media attention has focused on the emails that were hacked — i.e., stolen … a felony — from Democratic sources, allegedly by the Russians, and then leaked to help Trump's campaign. The key points in the Trump Jr. emails bombshell were that 1) Russia wanted Trump to win the election and 2) Trump's inner circle seemed eager to cooperate with them. And so if the Trump campaign somehow provided data to Russia's "fake news" content farms, that would suggest an even closer level of cooperation between the winning presidential campaign and an adversarial foreign power that wanted a new president to lift economic sanctions.

Here's where it really gets interesting. The Trump campaign, including Kushner (who also took part in the Trump Tower confab with the Russian lawyer) worked closely with a data firm — Cambridge Analytica — connected to Trump's richest, most secretive and arguably most influential backer, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah. That circle also includes another top Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, who was on the Cambridge Analytica board of directors, and Kellyanne Conway, who did consulting work for the Mercers before she connected with Trump.

Much of this scenario was spelled out in an article that appeared on the website Just Security in May. After the election, Kushner bragged that micro-targeting was Trump's secret weapon, and he specifically praised the Mercer-run outfit for Forbes:

This wasn't a completely raw startup. Kushner's crew was able to tap into the Republican National Committee's data machine, and it hired targeting partners like Cambridge Analytica to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most: trade, immigration or change.

A deeply reported investigative piece in the Guardian, also published in May, made two explosive claims about Cambridge Analytica's work over the course of 2016 that go well beyond Kushner's claims. The first was that a key part of the Mercers' firm's work was indeed to suppress the Democratic turnout last November. Specifically:

Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was "voter disengagement" and "to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home": a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence.

Second, it claims that Cambridge Analytica also played a critical role in the other 2016 vote that shocked the world: The successful Brexit campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Both that result and Trump's election achieved the key strategic goal of Russia: Destabilizing the Western alliance. That's no proof of collusion, of course. But you can see why investigators are stepping up their probes. In the case of hacking, we know that the Trump campaign was seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats and that dirt — courtesy, it is alleged, of Russian hackers — appeared just weeks later. In the case of data, we know that Jared Kushner wanted to target specific voters and the Russians set up an operation to create "fake news" content for exactly those readers. Either it's the world's greatest coincidence, or something darker was going on. This take by the Guardian's writer Carole Cadwalladr is as dark as it gets:

There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.

To say it more simply: Follow the data.