I first heard of David Zaikin on June 12, 2017, when an acquaintance of mine, a consultant with a suite of exotic international clients, told me he knew someone who had been smeared in Politico, the respected clearinghouse for insider political news. The article, published on April 25, 2017, was headlined, “Flynn’s Turkish Lobbying Linked to Russia,” followed by the subhead: “The former national security adviser’s client had business dealings in Russia and worked with an executive in Russian oil companies on Turkish lobbying projects.” Zaikin, a then-49-year-old Ukrainian-born Canadian citizen living in London, was the “executive” who helped form this supposed link between Russia and the suspicious pro-Turkey activities of former Trump appointee Michael Flynn.
The article was written by a reporter named Isaac Arnsdorf, then a Politico staffer and now with ProPublica. It claimed that Zaikin had secretly partnered with Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-born entrepreneur with an intriguing portfolio in international business, political lobbying, and enterprises that seemed to combine aspects of both. Alptekin ran a consulting company out of the Netherlands called Inovo BV Alptekin. He also headed the Turkey-U.S. Business Council from 2015-2017, an Istanbul-based trade organization operated under the auspices of the Turkish government.
The crux of the Politico article concerned a third organization. The story alleged that Alptekin had covertly joined forces with Zaikin to launch the Turkish Heritage Organization, which the article characterized as a pro-Ankara Washington lobbying outfit. Alptekin seemed to be involved in a complicated range of roles and relationships that all reenforced his reputation as a politically ambitious ally of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s autocratic president.
In the summer of 2016, Inovo awarded a $530,000 contract to the Flynn Intel Group, the ex-army general’s newly established lobbying firm. The payment was for Flynn, the former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, to produce videos and op-eds attacking Fethullah Gulen, a dissident Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan’s government viewed Gulen as an enemy of the Turkish state and had accused the elderly cleric of plotting a July 2016 coup, leading Ankara to step up its lobbying for Gulen’s extradition.
Flynn reported the Alptekin contract under Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) rules, but concerns later emerged that his work might have principally benefited the Turkish government. This would have triggered additional, stricter transparency requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which applies to persons attempting to influence the U.S. government on behalf of foreign political interests of any kind. Flynn didn’t register as a foreign agent until March of 2017—three weeks after he resigned as Trump’s national security adviser.
In December of 2017, Flynn pled guilty to lying to federal law enforcement about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition. That made him the only Trump administration official to be convicted in the course of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe, which had its origins in the accusation that Trump or members of his team had plotted with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. A year later, Alptekin was indicted in absentia on allegations of violating FARA through contracting Flynn and making false statements to law enforcement.
In the version of events Arnsdorf laid out in Politico, and in a June 2017 follow-up co-published by Politico and ProPublica, this convoluted plot—with its international cast of characters and aura of intrigue and criminal conspiracy—pointed to something even more sinister than the standard practices of DC lobbying. Arnsdorf strongly suggested that Flynn’s lobbying for Turkey was actually connected, through Zaikin, in some way or form, with powerful individuals in Russia, a hostile foreign power. With that premise established, it would take only one more inferential leap to see how Zaikin, working through Flynn, connected another malign Russian operation to Donald Trump’s inner circle.
For the past three years, the idea that foreign actors—Russians, or Israelis, or Turks—were directly responsible for Trump’s shocking and increasingly unfortunate election has become a media staple, with hundreds of U.S. and foreign citizens named at one time or another as key figures in a conspiracy whose outline kept expanding even as its mechanics remained foggy. Chances are you’ve seen a dozen other articles similar to the Zaikin stories—dense stacks of seemingly damning information marshaled against shadowy and previously unknown figures who seem all the more sinister for being so unknown, with the covertness of their alleged activities in the service of Trump or Russia serving as implicit proof of their guilt. Zaikin presents a case study in how such articles come together and the consequences they have, once published, on the lives of their subjects and the general public’s grasp of the truth.
Tablet attempted to contact Politico, ProPublica, and Arnsdorf on multiple occasions. In response to several questions, in July of 2018 Politico sent only a short note: “We stand by our reporting.” Arnsdorf addressed a limited number of questions over email in July 2018, but declined to meet or be interviewed for this article.
It is now a truly dizzying ordeal for anyone relying on the media to keep their bearings in America’s political landscape. The articles and data points come in a flood: News of a Ukrainian-born Canadian businessman allegedly making deals with American intelligence chiefs through Dutch-Turkish cutouts, potentially on behalf of unidentified Russians; real and staged leaks of worrying but unproven allegations involving the president of the United States and his closest associates; Trump’s own reckless language and worrying behavior. Looming behind it all is the amorphous but omnipresent spectre of Russia, or if not quite Russia then Ukraine, or maybe some other foreign actor intent on corrupting or proving the corruption of the American president. The public’s ability to judge the severity of alleged political misconduct in this landscape—to distinguish between actual and manufactured conspiracies, actual and manufactured outrage—has suffered, not only from the president’s repeated attacks on the media, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, but from the media’s own handling of these events as well.
The Politico article hinted that Zaikin was a central player in the Flynn drama by connecting the Ukrainian-born businessman to the Turkish Heritage Organization and by suggesting that the size of Flynn’s contract was suspiciously large—possibly more than Alptekin’s company or Alptekin himself could pay. And the Flynn guilty plea and Alptekin indictment do in fact make a strong case Alptekin knowingly acted as a middle man for someone else’s money. Even in the spring of 2017, Flynn’s contract could resemble a state-sanctioned bribe, especially in light of two unexplained $40,000 repayments from Flynn to Alptekin that Arnsdorf reported, possible kickbacks in a string of financial improprieties linking the former general’s lobbying to Ankara—or maybe to Moscow, in light of Alptekin’s furtive connections to Zaikin, a mysterious and allegedly Russian-linked political operative.
Aside from the intrigue of an alleged Russiagate player like Zaikin, determining whether Arnsdorf’s story was true seemed like a path into larger issues around how the press functions in a fast-changing landscape driven by social media, a tiny handful of outsize political personalities, and operatives furtively handing out access, sources and scoops. As I retraced Arnsdorf’s reporting it became impossible not to see a larger story about journalism, especially once I started talking to multiple key figures in the Zaikin affair who claimed they had been misrepresented in the Politico article and its follow-up. Perhaps, most problematically for Arnsdorf’s stories, there is now far more information in the public record about Flynn’s lobbying than there was in April of 2017, and none of it implicates Russia or Zaikin. The stipulated facts in the Flynn case and the Alptekin indictment both discuss a Turkish source for Flynn’s lobbying payment, while the April 2019 Mueller Report explicitly notes that Flynn’s pro-Turkey lobbying did not involve Russia. Politico’s alleged “Russian connection” to “Flynn’s lobbying,” and its “‘International man of mystery’ linked to Flynn’s lobbying deal” are nowhere to be found.
There was more, though. By a hideous coincidence, one that occasionally seemed to make Zaikin wary of my own motives in writing this piece, Arnsdorf and I had worked on the same high school newspaper during the 2005-2006 school year. Until I received the initial email about Zaikin, I had not spoken to Arnsdorf or thought about him much for well over a decade. I remembered him being talented and smart, someone who was likely to have an impactful career in whatever field he entered. Now that we were both journalists, I wondered how our youthful enthusiasm had matured over time, and about the actual nature of the profession we had entered—what its rules were, what its purpose was, and what it was doing to both its practitioners and its putative subjects. Those questions nagged at me, until I decided to try and answer them.
* * *
Flynn was supposed to be a key witness in the government’s case against Alptekin and Bijan Kian, Alptekin’s Washington-based partner in the Flynn hire. But this past June, while awaiting sentencing for his conviction, Flynn retained new legal representation and claimed that he had fulfilled all of his obligations to the federal government under a cooperation agreement that would keep him out of prison. Flynn also claimed that as a condition of the agreement, the Feds were now effectively asking him to lie under oath—a burden that one could infer was meant to provide evidence of foreign plots against American democracy. As a result, Flynn did not testify at Kian’s trial, jeopardizing his deal with prosecutors. The trial turned out to be a fiasco for the government. Kian was convicted in July, with prosecutors arguing he acted as a knowing cut-out for Alptekin, who Kian knew to be a cut-out for Ankara. Then, on Sept. 24, the federal judge presiding over the case threw out the verdict, saying the decision was “against the heavy weight of the evidence,” and that the court had erred in instructing the jury to consider any of Alptekin’s statements in the evidentiary record to be factual. In other words: The Feds hadn’t yet proven a Turkish government conspiracy to buy off Flynn, never mind Kian’s knowing involvement in such a plot.
Just as the Mueller Report began to fade in political relevance, word leaked of a complaint to the inspector general alleging that Trump had used military aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine into producing damning information about the son of Joe Biden, his possible general election opponent. The transcript of Trump’s now-infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which triggered an ongoing impeachment inquiry, was released on Sept. 25, just one day after Kian’s conviction was thrown out in the now all-but-forgotten Flynn case.
But the ex-general was still a major figure in America’s hottest political scandal when Zaikin and I first spoke on June 17th, 2017. Zaikin’s story was that there was no story. In fact, Politico had produced a “bullshit story.” Zaikin acknowledged he had consulted for the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), which he said he found out about through a friend who had worked with one of the group’s eventual founders licensing jewelry in Turkey under the Marie Claire brand name. Zaikin said he had dedicated maybe 10 to 15 percent of his working time over a six-month period to the THO in late 2014 and early 2015. He claimed he didn’t know Alptekin, never mind Flynn.
In that first conversation Zaikin said Arnsdorf was preparing a second article and had been looking into his life in a way that Zaikin considered invasive: “He started badgering a lot of people who knew me, in Canada, and in Washington, and he went as far as Macedonia and Albania. And then at some point, maybe four days ago, he sends another set of questions. … He talks about my kids, he talks about my parents—which is disgusting, to bring them into his personal vendetta.” In a June 11, 2017, email from Arnsdorf that Zaikin later shared with me, the reporter asked: “With which family members did you arrive in Canada from Ukraine? When and where did you and [your wife] meet and marry? When and where were your children born?”
The original Politico story, for which Zaikin had provided brief written responses to questions from Arnsdorf, elicited a sternly worded letter to Arnsdorf from Zaikin’s London-based lawyers, sent later the same day the article appeared. A successful lawsuit seemed unlikely under U.S. libel laws, but Zaikin still wanted to counter whatever was coming next, which is probably why he was talking to me. “There is nothing factual,” he said. “It is just allegations and somebody talking on background suggesting this or that, which is impossible to fight.” Yet if he expected me to immediately publish his counterclaims to discredit Arnsdorf’s upcoming article, Zaikin never said so explicitly.
I did not know who Zaikin was, or how much I should be willing to believe him. He spoke in vehement yet unbroken English, filtered through a heavy Slavic accent. His tone was more aggrieved than badgering—he had been the victim of a fabricated hit piece, he said, and was worried that more was coming in a matter of days. He seemed eager to put his alleged victimization on-record, no doubt in the hope I could help clear him, now or at some future point in time.
Though I was reserving judgement about Zaikin, I had noticed some odd things about the Politico article. The story claimed Zaikin had been a close associate of Alptekin’s, yet furnished only skeletal evidence of this fact, none of it on-record. “[E]kim Alptekin has in recent years helped to coordinate Turkish lobbying in Washington with Dmitri ‘David’ Zaikin, a Soviet-born former executive in Russian energy and mining companies who also has had dealings with Putin’s government, according to three people with direct knowledge of the activities,” the article’s second paragraph reads. Phrases like “the activities” go unexplained, and there are no hints as to who these “three people” are. Their seniority, professions, and location within the article’s earth-spanning, decadeswide body of facts was never specified.
Three is a big number in journalism, but it is—or was—unusual for a story implicating an individual, by name, in a shadowy transnational conspiracy against America to rely so heavily on hazily identified background sources. Parsed carefully, it’s clear that the article does not identify the specific work on which Zaikin and Alptekin collaborated, and avoids making an explicit claim that they ever met in person. “As to two other queries—whether Alptekin and Zaikin met face to face and ‘the nature of Zaikin’s connection to the Flynn contract’—I would point you back to the text of the article, which was silent on query 1 and stated the following on query 2: ‘… three people with direct knowledge said Alptekin and Zaikin collaborated on Turkish lobbying, jointly steering the work,’” Arnsdorf wrote to Tablet in July of 2018 in response to questions sent to him asking to clarify the story’s claims. The article neither provided nor referred to any email, telephonic, documentary, or photographic proof that the men knew each other, worked together, or had ever communicated. Arnsdorf provided no such proof in his email questionnaires to Zaikin, which also refer to the three unnamed sources.
The Zaikin-Alptekin connection rests on the claim the two had secretly collaborated to create the Turkish Heritage Organization. As Arnsdorf writes, “Alptekin and Zaikin have helped steer Turkish lobbying through various groups since at least 2015.” Even if Zaikin was revealed to be THO’s hidden founder, the story offered sparse details of Alptekin’s role in the organization. The closest the publication could come to linking Zaikin and Alptekin was through claiming Alptekin “met with communications consultants working for the Turkish Heritage Organization,” an assertion sourced to a partner of Zaikin’s named John Moreira, but that sheds no light on when or where the meetings took place, what purpose they served, and whether Zaikin himself was ever involved with those meetings. Alptekin “acknowledged that he has attended events and met with leaders of the Turkish Heritage Organization,” although the article provides no further details about those meetings either, and does not include any proof of Alptekin holding an official role in THO. As for Flynn, of the three Turkey-linked organizations in which Alptekin is known or alleged to be involved, it was only Inovo, his Netherlands-based consulting firm, that had documented business dealings with the ex-general. The Politico article doesn’t try to explain how or whether Flynn had any substantial involvement with THO and makes no claims that Zaikin and Flynn met, worked together, or communicated with each other, directly or indirectly.
The article’s attempts to connect Zaikin to a broader Russian plot were similarly curious. Arnsdorf reported Zaikin had conducted business in the Russian extractive industries sector in the late 2000s, where he had crossed paths with various Putin allies and pulled off a number of strange—but not necessarily criminal—financial transactions. Zaikin’s “dealings with Putin’s government” apparently referred to his company’s purchase of oil exploration rights through a provincial governor in central Russia, a business activity in which numerous other people have also engaged, including Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, a former Exxon CEO. Zaikin’s company had sold a 2.5% ownership stake in a subsidiary of his oil exploration venture to an unnamed ”ex-KGB oligarch” at a steep discount. Still, the article made no attempt to connect any of Zaikin’s long-ago work in Russia to either Alptekin or to the Flynn contract. Instead, the fact Zaikin had done business in Russia at any point was used to build a case that he fit the profile of a Russian operative, which then meant that he was perhaps involved in a plot to buy off American officials and influence the 2016 election.
These disconnected and oftentimes vague facts and assertions might indeed be damning if they could ever be convincingly linked with one another. If the article had proved that Zaikin was serving the Russian government through this alleged work with Alptekin, or could even prove Alptekin and Zaikin had cooperated on the Flynn contract in any way, it would have exposed a valuable new angle on the Trump-Russia scandal. But a fair-minded reader could conclude that the article had done none of these things.
In my first conversation with Zaikin, he made a statement that seemed more and more like a dare as the months and years dragged on, although he almost certainly didn’t intend it that way. “When a journalist is saying he spoke with three people on background, there is no way of seeing if they exist or don’t exist,” Zaikin said.
True enough: Readers have limited ability and even less inclination to independently fact-check a given story. But as a journalist, I had the skills and professional mandate to do my own investigating. A simple binary presented itself: Either Zaikin was an operative whose work proved that Turkey and Russia had teamed up in buying off one of the future president’s top advisers. Or else he was the victim of an elaborately constructed but ultimately misleading and destructive narrative; a possible example of how the media can help weaponize information flows in the service of unseen agendas.
On June 27, 2017, ProPublica and Politico co-published an article titled, “The ‘International Man of Mystery’ Linked to Flynn’s Lobbying Deal,” also by Isaac Arnsdorf. The reporter had left Politico for the Pulitzer-winning nonprofit investigative journalism project in early May, just a few days after first Zaikin expose appeared.
The ProPublica headline’s promise of linking this “man of mystery” to the disgraced ex-general went unrealized. One could already detect a certain ambivalence in the article’s subhead: “Dmitri ‘David’ Zaikin made Russian energy deals with powerful officials, advised Eastern European parties drifting toward Russia, brokered condos at Toronto’s Trump Tower, and teamed up with the guy who hired Michael Flynn.” The vagueness continued into the body of the article: Zaikin had “a long track record of partnering with powerful Russian businesspeople and government officials, mostly involving energy and mining deals,” none of which involved Flynn or Alptekin. Assuming all of this information was true, it had no direct bearing on Zaikin’s alleged participation in the Flynn lobbying contract, which was the putative topic of the article, at least according to its headline. Instead, Armsdorf tried to prove Zaikin had the profile of someone who plausibly might have had something to do with Flynn’s lobbying deal. (A precis of Arnsdorf’s Zaikin reporting appears as a sidebar to a July 14, 2017, piece the reporter wrote for ProPublica, in which Zaikin is included in a list of people “with mysterious ties to Russian business and politics who have shown up in Trump’s orbit.” In contrast, Zaikin was not included in a January 2018 Politico feature chronicling “the 332 people connected to the Russia probes.”)
According to my own reporting, many of the factual details in both the June 2017 report and in its April predecessor are accurate, or accurate enough. The interesting thing is how little that matters. Taken together, the articles affirm the old journalism school chestnut that it’s possible for a story to get every fact right and still be wildly off.
Readers of the ProPublica piece are led to believe the Alptekin-Zaikin relationship has been firmly established—there’s no reason to discuss the two men in relation to one another, or to write multiple investigative articles premised on some previously unexposed overlap of their work, if they were in fact strangers to each other. Yet in both articles, Arnsdorf’s only proof is an alleged mutual link to the Turkish Heritage Organization’s founding, a claim grounded in the previously mentioned “three people with direct knowledge of the activities.” Both stories note that Alptekin and Zaikin deny knowing each other.
Still, several of Arnsdorf’s own sources, seven of whom I was able to reach over the course of reporting this article in the summer and fall of 2017, told him they didn’t think Zaikin and Alptekin knew one another. “When I finished our conversation it seemed to me that he wanted to say that Ekim and David Zaikin had some kind of link with Russia, and he wanted to write that no matter what I said,” one of Arnsdorf’s Washington-based sources recalled to me. Two of Arnsdorf’s other sources told me the reporter was disbelieving or incredulous when they insisted that Alpekin and Zaikin hadn’t ever worked together.
Of course, it is possible Zaikin and Alptekin actually did know each other and worked together, and that Arnsdorf had reason to think that some of his own sources—the ones I could track down, at least—were either ill-informed or dishonest. Conveniently for Politico and ProPublica, it’s also impossible to prove a negative.
In his first article, Arnsdorf writes that the “unusual arrangement in which Alptekin and Zaikin have helped steer Turkish lobbying through various groups since at least 2015, raises questions about both the agenda of the two men and the source of the funds used to pay the lobbyists.” In the June article, Arnsdorf reports that Inovo, the Alptekin-owned Dutch consulting firm that contracted Flynn, was 125,000 euros in debt. Alptekin told Arnsdorf he paid Flynn’s lobbying contract with his own money (a claim at odds with the Alptekin indictment, Meuller report, Flynn guilty plea, and a host of other evidence). The article then immediately notes that “Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian efforts to influence the election, is interested in the source of Flynn’s lobbying income, according to a person familiar with the probe,” with the implication the source might be Russian rather than Turkish, given the article’s headline and interest in Zaikin, who is referred to as a “Soviet-born” businessman who had frequently worked in Russia (as well as Mueller’s specific mandate to investigate Russian election interference). Arnsdorf never accuses Zaikin of laundering Russian cash to pay Flynn, just as he never accuses Flynn of paying a kickback to an allegedly cash-strapped Alptekin—again, Arnsdorf never clearly articulates Zaikin’s alleged link to Flynn. But emails between Arnsdorf and Zaikin that Zaikin provided, and an April 28th, 2017 letter from Politico’s lawyers to Zaikin’s lawyers that Zaikin also shared with Tablet and whose authenticity Tablet has independently verified present a glimpse into the publication’s thought process.
Politico’s lawyers’ message came in response to the letter Zaikin’s lawyer sent to the publication and Arnsdorf on April 25, 2017, objecting to Arnsdorf’s first article about Zaikin.
The letter from a lawyer with Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schultz notes, “the Article never suggests that Mr. Zaikin paid Gen. Michael Flynn, nor does it state or imply that Mr. Zaikin is himself connected to President Vladimir Putin.” True enough. But later on, Politico’s lawyers write, “The Article considers an issue of significant national concern–the funding source and business relationships of Mr. Alptekin, who apparently hired Gen. Flynn to conduct lobbying that ‘principally benefitted’ a foreign government at the same time the general was advising Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential election and during the transition.” This is both a valid legal contention and a nifty rhetorical trick: The article is about the funding sources for Flynn’s contract, and it’s also largely about Zaikin, who is accused of being an associate of Alptekin’s. Because no factual claim is made linking Zaikin and the source of Flynn’s payment, any connection between the article’s two topics is ipso facto a product of the reader’s own subjectivity. Legally speaking, it’s a matter of a reader’s individual judgment whether the article actually meant to draw any direct link between its two explicit subject matters. After all, Politico can’t be held responsible for the conclusions someone draws from an article. Nor should it be.
But then, a sentence later, Politico’s lawyers write: “The Article is expressly constructed around questions rather than conclusions. This is the type of journalistic inquiry that is wholly proper–and, incidentally, which is ‘insufficient to sustain a defamation suit’ based on alleged ‘insinuations’ and implications that one alleges can be read into the mere raising of questions.”
The most important word in this paragraph is “mere,” and its use raises plenty of questions of its own. Can any suggestion of any crime, no matter how hideous or consequential, be made against any individual, so long as the phrasing is conditional enough to be libel-proof? Can a publication yolk someone to a national scandal just because one could reasonably wonder whether that individual is involved—even if there is little-to-no compelling evidence they were involved? Legally, yes. Whether this is a morally defensible tactic is another question entirely. The majority of media consumers are not lawyers, after all.
The interesting thing is how little that matters. Taken together, the articles affirm the old journalism school chestnut that it’s possible for a story to get every fact right and still be wildly off.
Part of why Zaikin says he took the two articles about him so personally—aside from their libel-proof allegations of involvement in a vast plot to undermine American democracy—was because of what he believed they implied about his parentage and background. The Politico article described Zaikin as “a Soviet-born former executive in Russian energy and mining companies who also has had dealings with Putin’s government.” The April 2017 letter from Zaikin’s London-based lawyer Tara J. Plochocki to Arnsdorf states that the reporter’s alleged “disregard for Mr. Zaikin’s Jewish identity is an outrage. As Mr. Zaikin freely shared in response to your interview questions, he is a Ukrainian Jew whose family was persecuted as enemies of the state at the hands of the Soviet government.” The letter accuses Arnsdorf of committing “a butchery of Mr. Zaikin’s heritage.” It was one thing to connect Zaikin to the Trump-Russia scandal; quite another to link him to “Russia” by way of what Zaikin viewed as a distortion or erasure of his personal history. As he put it to me during a phone conversation in July, 2017, “If half of your family was executed by the Stalin regime and then some little shit who never leaves his family’s basement says it’s not true, you don’t even want to fight it.”
Zaikin moved to Canada in 1990, where he began working in real estate. The earliest mention of him on Lexis Nexis is a Feb. 16, 2002, blurb in the Toronto edition of the National Post announcing his brokerage of the sale of a six-bedroom, 10-bathroom mansion in the city’s Thornhill area. But he had spent his first 23 years in Soviet Ukraine. Judaism was practically against the law: “You’re oppressed,” Zaikin said of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union. “You’re a second-class citizen.”
One of the few connections to Judaism that the Soviet system couldn’t take away from Zaikin was his family’s story. Zaikin says his grandfather “was involved in a movement which provided Jews fake Soviet passports so they could cross the border between the Soviet Union and Poland during and after the Second World War.” At the time, clandestine immigration to pre-statehood Palestine was overseen by a group called the Mossad, which is distinct from the modern-day intelligence agency. His grandfather, whose name was Joseph Neiman, was arrested and sent to the gulag in 1946, according to the Israeli scholar Felix Kandel’s history of Russian-speaking Jews in the 20th century.
Zaikin’s mother would receive occasional updates about her father after he made it to Israel in the 1970s. For Zaikin’s family, news of Neiman’s life in the Jewish state could be a cruel reminder that their own lives were being wasted. “You feel that you don’t belong where you are,” he said of the experience of receiving word from his grandfather. “You feel that you’d like to leave, but you can’t. You feel that you’re the prisoner of a system but there’s no good way out.”
Zaikin’s grandfather died in 1986. Zaikin’s mother and grandfather had last seen each other in the late 1940s, when she was 4 years old. Zaikin and his mother first visited Israel in 1993, after the Soviet Union’s dissolution and after they had moved to Canada. Zaikin said he was so eager to leave Ukraine in 1990 that he cut off his studies at Kharkiv’s pharmacological university, where he was close to graduating.
The Politico and ProPublica articles tell a very different story about the arc of Zaikin’s life, casting a dark shadow of conspiracy over his foreign contacts and shifts in career focus. Thus the ProPublica story includes passages like: “‘David was on the inside track,’ said a former work associate, Jordan Silverstein, ‘He seemed like an international man of mystery.’” A former Zaikin business partner, Geoffrey Cowley, raised questions about Zaikin’s connections with officials and state actors from countries across the globe. “When he was with me, whoever I wanted to see, David would pick up the telephone and I got to see him … That doesn’t happen with some Jewish refugee out of Ukraine who doesn’t know anybody.”
One shortcoming of investigative journalism is that it doesn’t always allow its practitioners to take human nature into account. Reporters cannot plug gaps in their stories or speculate about individual motive in the same way novelists or essayists can. The need for forensic certainty is sometimes at odds with the empathy required to faithfully tell other people’s stories. The same record of skipping between different professional pursuits that is suspicious in one narrative coloration can take on a very different quality in another. In the fall of 2017, Alex Podopryhora, a Ukrainian classmate of Zaikin’s at the London Business School, where Zaikin studied in the late 2000s, told me Zaikin had semirecently approached him about the possibility of promoting a concert by a Turkish singer in Kiev. “He comes across as a person who does everything. He can do jewelry, mining, singers, and obviously if a person does a lot of things he gets a lot of connections,” said Podopryhora. “Whether these connections have another story behind them, I don’t know.”
In a conversation in July of 2017, Zaikin recalled getting lost “between Guinea and Mali” during a business trip. His party was running out of food, and even some of his guides and handlers were beginning to panic. Zaikin claimed he was never particularly worried. He said he had “grown up in a country where there is no Judaism, there is no right or wrong, there is no right to go to synagogue or pray.” As a result, “I knew what it meant for me to stand alone. I knew at some point we’ll figure it out.”
Zaikin could be open and boastful and one moment, and then jealously guarded the next. “My idea is not to create another shitstorm,” Zaikin would say when I inquired about gray zones in his complex biography. Arnsdorf’s articles had shackled intimate aspects of his life to an ongoing political scandal, making his entire history an alleged matter of public interest. Suddenly, things like his wife’s jewelry business, and his family’s friendship with a now-deceased real estate broker, had been shot into the universe of evidence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The factual nexus connecting, say, a minor mid-2000s oil deal in a remote corner of Russia to the Flynn scandal was extremely tenuous. Yet undoing it meant playing by the rules Politico and ProPublica had set for him. Paradoxically, the only way for Zaikin to prove his innocence would be to accept the premise that his entire life was a topic of valid public concern and bring even more of his private history to light, thus opening additional avenues of potential scrutiny. No doubt, sometime, somewhere, he had done something someone might find objectionable, or that could be construed as violating some country’s law, whether great or small. The more he tried to prove his innocence the more material he provided for those intent on proving his guilt.
“It’s like gasoline on your suit,” Zaikin said of the suspicions that Arnsdorf’s articles had raised about him. “You cannot take the smell away. You could clean it, but the smell will stay.”
Arnsdorf’s case that Zaikin’s business dealings in Russia are relevant to the Flynn affair is largely based around Zaikin’s management of Siberian Energy Group, a New York-based oil exploration venture in Russia’s Kurgan Oblast; and First Iron Group, a Channel Islands-based and Kurgan-focused mining company that Zaikin co-founded in 2007. As the two articles tell it, Zaikin’s career frequently brought him into contact, and sometimes into business, with powerful and connected Russians, making him the kind of person who could be useful in a multilateral effort to buy off Flynn. There was Mikhail Kopeikin, a director at First Iron Group with a career in Russian politics and a high-ranking board position at VEB, a Russian bank now under U.S. sanctions. Then there’s Alisher Usmanov, a Russian magnate who “ultimately controlled” First Iron Group, according to the original version of the ProPublic piece, which the Wayback machine preserves, though ProPublica eventually backtracked on that detail. In an “update” from July 17, 2017, the publication acknowledged that Usmanov’s supposed ownership of the company was single-sourced to a Zaikin business partner named Geoffrey Cowley, who later told the publication Usmanov had only expressed interest in buying the company. The current version of the article now states that “the venture drew a takeover bid from Alisher Usmanov”—an attempt that happened “after David was no longer involved with the company,” Cowley told me in August of 2017.
Zaikin told me he got involved in western Siberia in the early 2000s because of a real estate client who lived near him in Toronto. The man was from Kurgan and mentioned there might be oil opportunities there. According to Zaikin, the contact knew the brother of Oleg Bogomolov, the region’s governor from 1996 to 2014 and a minor Putin ally. In Kurgan, Zaikin met with Bogomolov, who he describes as “a typical Siberian man”: an arch-pragmatist for whom things were “black and white,” and a person “who doesn’t need to hire someone to do renovations on his house.” Bogomolov is currently a member of the supervisory board at the Russian Agricultural Bank, an appropriately middling sinecure for an obscure ex-governor of an unimportant region. Chris Miller, a professor and expert on the Russian economy at Yale University, said Bogomolov is “not someone who’s widely known to be an important political actor. He’s not a household name in terms of major Russian power brokers.” The venture drilled at least two exploratory wells in 2007, according to the 2009 edition of the International Petroleum Encyclopedia. But they didn’t strike oil, something the project had in common with roughly half of exploratory drilling that the better-equipped oil majors undertook in the country in 2008, according to a 2011 Ernst & Young report.
Zaikin’s record in Siberia isn’t without its peculiarities. In the April 25 story, Arnsdorf reports that in 2008, Zaikin “made a deal with an ex-KGB oligarch involved in the giant state oil company Gazprom” in which he allowed the buyer to purchase a 2.5% stake in one of Siberian’s subsidiaries at a price that would have valued that company at $400, rather than the $2.7 million Zaikin had bought it for the year before. Interestingly, in the subsequent ProPublica article, the buyer turns from an “ex-KGB oligarch” to “two Russian investors,” a discrepancy which isn’t explained.
The alleged giveaway, whether involving ex-KGB agents or not, is the single most suspicious thing about Zaikin that Arnsdorf found, although it happened eight years before Flynn’s lobbying contract. Zaikin’s explanation is that his company sold the subsidiary after Siberian Energy had failed to find oil, and at a time when it had no intention of using certain exploration licenses which were due to expire anyway.
After reviewing the details of Zaikin’s business dealings and relationships as Politico and ProPublica reported them, Miller, the Yale Russia expert, saw no evidence of anything uniquely sinister, at least by the standards of late-2000s Russia. “It’s easy to jump to conclusions that evidence of corruption is evidence of something broader,” Miller cautioned.
Siberian Energy and First Iron Group serve another purpose in Arnsdorf’s stories. The reporter used the companies to show Zaikin’s own business partners believed there was something off about him. In the ProPublica story, Arnsdorf quotes the letter that Zaikin’s lawyer sent him on April 25: “‘Mr. Zaikin reserves nothing but contempt for the Soviet government, and whatever vestiges of it may still exist,’ his lawyer, Tara Plochocki, wrote to Politico.” Arnsdorf wasn’t convinced. “But Zaikin gave a different account to Geoffrey P. Cowley, a British engineer who was his business partner from 2010 until they split in 2016,” the article reads. “Cowley said he never heard Zaikin claim his family was persecuted, nor had he heard Zaikin criticize the former Soviet Union. ‘That might be the official line,’ Cowley said. Instead, according to Cowley, Zaikin had said his father was in the Soviet military or diplomatic corps.”
According to the ProPublica article, Zaikin was suspiciously well connected in Russia, too. “Zaikin worked to help the governor of the western Siberian oblast of Kurgan attract Western investors for energy exploration and infrastructure, according to Tim Peara, whom Zaikin hired to help raise money in the United Kingdom. ‘He did the government of Kurgan a lot of favors in terms of helping to raise money for them,’ Peara said. The governor reported directly to President Vladimir Putin, according to a company press release.”
When reached over the summer of 2017, both Cowley and Peara questioned Arnsdorf’s characterization of their conversations with him. “What I did say that is true is: Whoever we wanted to see, David seemed to be able to arrange—which was quite impressive,” Cowley recalled of his talk with the reporter. “And then [Arnsdorf] made that comment: ‘not bad for a Jewish immigrant or Ukrainian immigrant,’ or something like that. I never said that at all, although it was attributed to me.” Cowley said he told the reporter that he had “just assumed [Zaikin’s] father had been in the military or the diplomatic service based on the contacts David had—that’s how I put it. To me it wasn’t logical how else you would make such a wide range of contacts. But to this day, David had never told me about his parents’ background at all … The whole story was twisted basically to make it sound as if I was saying David had some kind of subterfuge political background when in reality he hadn’t at all.” In July of 2017, Zaikin told me that his father was a “radio engineer,” and “as far from secret service as it gets.” In August, Cowley, told me that he has some “contemporaneous notes” he took about his conversation with Arnsdorf. “If he came to a gunfight in court I’ve got some notes I can share.”
Peara, whom I spoke to in September of 2017, voiced similar concerns about how he was presented in Arnsdorf’s article. He recalled telling Arnsdorf about the investment and employment opportunities that the Siberian-Baltic joint venture was bringing to the economically depressed Kurgan region. Yet in Arnsdorf’s story, it sounds like Peara is accusing his business partner of illicitly trading favors with the government of Kurgan—an insinuation that Peara says is misleading. “He paraphrased me and tried to emphasize that there was something sleazy going on, as opposed to saying Zaikin’s trying to do something to generate a profit, and in so doing he’s not trying to screw the people or the governor but trying to help them,” he explained. Peara described Arnsdorf’s treatment of their conversation as “a bit of fabrication.”
John Moreira would not speak on-record for this story. Yet he also seems to have claimed Politico misquoted him. In her April 25 lawyer’s letter to Arnsdorf, Plochocki writes, “You also printed that Mr. Moreira said that ‘he thought Zaikin has Turkish friends and business associates. You may wish to re-examine your notes, as I am informed by Mr. Moreira himself that in response to your assertion that Mr. Zaikin was ‘organizing’ THO, he said there was a group of Turkish-Americans who were interested in helping improve relations between Turkey and the United States, and that he did not know Mr. Zaikin’s relationship to them.”
Peara, Cowley, and Moreira were all in business with Zaikin. If they knowingly worked with a Kremlin-linked operative, they’d have every incentive to want to muddy the factual record. But Cowley boasted to me that he has been in business with Kremlin-linked operatives—only Zaikin hadn’t been one of them. “I worked with a guy called Oleg Deripaska,” Cowley told me. “He’s very close to Putin, I mean very close to Putin, and he was my boss in Russia and I got to know most of the movers and shakers who were doing deals with the government through him. And David never came anywhere near that. I did a lot of business with Abramovich in Russia,” he continued. “Again, I never came across David.”
Peara believes Zaikin found him through an internet search. He admires his former partner, even if they didn’t strike oil. “He impressed me more as a self-made entrepreneur than anyone who’s relying on connections,” said Peara. “It’s not like he served in the military or served in the KGB or FSB. He is Jewish, he practices, I’ve been to seder at his house … he didn’t come from big political connections. He used his own smarts to put deals together.”
Experts I asked to review Zaikin’s history were split as to what the publicly available details of his career really indicated. “Is he interesting to me?,” an intelligence consultant with lengthy experience in the former Soviet Union wrote when I asked him about Zaikin’s possible Kremlin connections over email in late 2017. “He’s another piece on the board so he is not uninteresting—however the board is rather cluttered at the moment, so he is not especially interesting to me.”
On closer examination, the notion that Zaikin is even a “piece” on this metaphorical “board” of stealth pro-Moscow operatives doesn’t hold up. In the ProPublica article, Arnsdorf writes that “Zaikin has done political work in Eastern Europe, advising parties in Albania and Macedonia that have drifted toward the Kremlin.” Yet as Arnsdorf himself notes later in the story, one of those parties is Albania’s LSI, which is in favor of NATO membership and accession to the EU and is, as the author puts it, “avowedly pro-Western.” It’s true that Macedonia’s VMRO can be pro-Kremlin in orientation in spite of its support for joining NATO and the EU. A willingness to work with both pro- and vaguely anti-Western parties in the same region is more a sign of opportunism than Putinist sympathies. Yet the two articles inflate this category error to near-conspiratorial proportions.
Arnsdorf couldn’t prove Zaikin was a secret Kremlin agent. But he had abundant evidence Zaikin embodied a type less alluring to the political imagination of his age but more representative of its realties: An aspiring operator who had just enough ambition and instinct to try his hand at Washington’s influence game.
* * *
Zaikin says he first began working with the Turkish Heritage Organization in late 2014, which is around the same time the group’s web domain was first registered. He says he helped connect the group to potential PR clients in D.C., a part-time gig he landed through a friend of his wife’s who knew one of THO’s founders through the jewelry industry. Zaikin made inroads with Mercury LLC and Ogilvy; Moreira, his partner, handled matters like the THO employee handbook and health insurance plans.
Arnsdorf’s stories suggests Zaikin was one of THO’s prime movers: In ProPublica, Zaikin is accused of “jointly steering” pro-Turkey lobbying in D.C. alongside Alptekin. Multiple people who spoke with Arnsdorf told me the reporter seemed convinced Zaikin was the hidden hand behind pro-Erdogan lobbying in D.C. In a statement, the group claimed to me that “THO was established by a group of Turkish-Americans (including main founder former President Halil Danismaz) with backgrounds in Community Leadership. As we indicated, David Zaikin was consultant and never part of the organization during the establishment application process.”
There’s some fascinating information out there about THO’s origins, but none of it implicates Zaikin. For instance, on Oct. 19, 2014, Turkish-American businessman Murat Guzel wrote an email to Erdogan son-in-law Berat Albayrak that WikiLeaks later published outlining a U.S.-based advocacy and research organization that sounds similar to what THO eventually became—Guzel even mentions that he had already spent $300,000 setting up such a group. According to an archived version of THO’s website from February of 2015 , Guzel was one of two publicly listed members of the group’s board of trustees. Meanwhile, Danismaz is reportedly one of the then-members of the board of the Turkish-Ameircan Steering Committee that the FBI interviewed about that group’s ties to the government in Ankara, a claim which was corroborated over the course of my reporting for this article. (Despite repeated attempts to reach Danismaz by email and through intermediaries, he did not respond to my requests for comment.)
The idea for THO emerged from a specifically Turkish set of circumstances. For years, Ankara had worked through the extensive U.S. network of the reformist cleric Fethullah Gulen to argue its case in Washington. But in late 2013, the Gulenists and Erdogan had a fateful and inevitably violent break, culminating in the Turkish president blaming the cleric and his followers for the country’s failed July 16, 2016 military coup. After the breakup, Erdogan’s supporters needed to build a new U.S. advocacy infrastructure from scratch.
THO shows how fraught that process was. The group’s leaders included Turkish-Americans close to Erdogan’s Islamist and authoritarian-trending government—Erdogan son-in-law Berat Albayrak’s inbox, which was published on WikiLeaks in December of 2016, shows that Danismaz, THO’s founder and first president, was in constant contact with Ankara. Others involved in THO, like current President Ali Cinar, were less well connected in Turkey but interested in promoting a strong U.S.-Turkish relationship. (Cinar was active in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and has testified before Congress about U.S.-Turkish relations.)
In mid-2017, THO rejected Arnsdorf’s suggestion that the group is engaged in trying to sway U.S. legislation or policy. “At no point since its formation did THO or THO staff provide any services at the direction of, request of, or funded by any foreign government or political parties,” the group said in a statement at the time. “Nor does THO engage in lobbying activities under US law.”
Any disagreements over the group’s direction may have stemmed from THO leadership being out of its depth in the D.C. advocacy world. As Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament and a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it, the split between Erdogan and the Gulenists depleted Ankara’s messaging capabilities in the United States. “Until their messy divorce in December 2013, Erdogan basically outsourced his US lobbying efforts to the Gulen network.”
The split with Gulen created opportunities for would-be influence peddlers eager to fill the vacuum. Ekim Alptekin, then head of the Erdogan-controlled Turkey-U.S. Business Council and someone who had aspirations of working his way into the president’s inner circle, was apparently one of them. “He wants to get into the super-elite of Turkey,” said Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based Turkish journalist who met Alptekin several times in D.C. “He wants to be a big shot.”
Ragip Soylu, a Washington correspondent for the pro-government Daily Sabah, viewed the Flynn contract as part of Alptekin’s quest for influence back home. “If he’d done a good job through Flynn’s company to expose Gulen he would be a hero in Turkey, not just in the eyes of the Turkish government but in the eyes of the Turkish public,” Soylu claimed.
It obviously didn’t work out that way. Nor did Alptekin have any obvious role in THO. Soylu said Alptekin wasn’t seen in D.C. until early 2016, over a year after the organization had been founded.
In the ProPublica story, Arnsdorf writes that Ankara “received updates on Zaikin’s lobbying,” linking to a leaked Oct. 6, 2015, email in which Zaikin cryptically complains that “IK hasn’t responding for 2 days.” The Turkish text of the thread shows Danismaz updating Albayrak about a late payment to a lawyer under contract to lobby for the Turkish government in D.C., with “IK” appearing to refer to Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s press secretary and one of his top advisers. But upon close examination of the Turkish-language portion of the email chain, it’s clear that it is the lobbyist and Kalin who have been in contact, not Kalin and Zaikin.
Zaikin’s route to some minor relevance in Washington wasn’t through any connections in Russia or even in Turkey, but through a motley group of Turkish-Americans new to the nation’s capital. “He was just arrogant,” someone familiar with foreign lobbying in D.C. and who met Zaikin recalled. “I would have introduced people to PR firms and I wouldn’t have taken the commission. He’s smarter than me.” The source got the impression Zaikin’s work in Washington was “just business. He doesn’t give a shit about Turkey. But he’s not pro-Russia, and definitely not pro-Putin.”
Subsequent revelations in the Flynn case have rendered Arnsdorf’s articles even more baroque. The stipulated facts in Flynn’s December 2017 guilty plea for lying to the FBI mentions that the retired general “made materially false statements” in his lobbying disclosure in asserting he “did not know whether or the extent to which the Republic of Turkey was involved in the Turkey project,” language that might imply a Turkish funding source for his contract with Alptekin. Any lingering doubt as to the likely origins of the money used to pay Flynn was dispelled in Alptekin’s December 2018 federal indictment, which goes into granular detail about the meetings with Turkish government officials in which payment was discussed, as well as the mechanisms for delivering the money and obscuring its origin. No Russian funding source is mentioned, and no one of Zaikin’s description appears in the 21-page document. Meanwhile, when Mueller’s team reportedly questioned Alptekin in the spring of 2017, investigators were interested in the alleged Turkish origins of the contract, rather than a Russian link.
Zaikin appears nowhere in the publicly available version of the Mueller report, which does not allege any Russian involvement in Flynn’s pro-Turkey lobbying. Quite the opposite: Flynn’s alleged FARA violations “concerned a country other than Russia,” the report notes. The lobbying contract would have been of obvious interest to the special prosecutor if the Russians actually had used it as a way of indirectly channeling money to the former general and Trump campaign adviser. This apparently wasn’t the case.
In Arnsdorf’s articles, two elite and respected media outlets launder what appears to have been little better than a conspiracy theory. But whose conspiracy theory was it?
* * *
On Oct. 11, 2016, the exiled Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt tweeted a screenshot of the IK email, writing that “It appears David Zaikin of Energymining.org” was involved in pro-Ankara “coordinated communication.” The Berat’s Box leak didn’t make it to WikiLeaks until over two months later. Bozkurt, who is now in exile in Sweden, once worked for Zaman in Turkey, which was the largest Gulen-aligned media outlet before Erdogan’s crackdown against the cleric’s followers. When reached for comment, Bozkurt acknowledged that the Berat’s Box emails had been in circulation long before WikiLeaks published them. Bozkurt told me he “got the whole archive from a source before they got posted to WikiLeaks,” someone he described as “a colleague or mine who also lives abroad in a different country.” His source wasn’t the only person who had the entire archive either, Bozkurt said, alluding to “a couple of journalists who got the scoop in advance.” He says he received the archive “3 to 4 months” before WikiLeaks published it.
The conflict between the Gulenists and Erdogan is now one of the defining fault lines in Turkish life. The Gulenists had a three- to four-month headstart identifying anyone mentioned in the Berat’s Box emails, a trove which showed that Zaikin was on emailing and speaking terms with a number of dedicated enemies of their movement. It makes sense that they would go after someone like Zaikin. As a Turkish expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing reprisal from the Turkish government observed to me, “The Gulenists are too eager to find a Russian connection and then jump on it. It fits their MO.” They had powerful allies in the Washington establishment, too: In the spring of 2016 the umbrella group for U.S.-based Gulen-affiliated organizations hired the Podesta Group, Tony Podesta’s powerful lobbying and communications shop, “to shape its image amid the avalanche of legal and political attacks” against the movement, according to Politico. (When reached by email this past October, Podesta said he had “never heard of” Zaikin.)
There’s another possibility for the origin of the Zaikin stories. In Glenn Simpson’s Nov. 17, 2017, testimony to the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which was publicly released in January of 2018, the Fusion GPS founder briefly speculates about a Turkish angle to the Trump-Russia scandal. “The Turkey-Russia connection I think is deeper than is generally understood,” Simpson told the committee, without going into detail. “I think that the Turkey-Russia—I think that the influence campaign that General Flynn got caught up in is reflective of that. And I think it’s not been excavated.” An alleged Turkish-Russian influence campaign targeting the future national security adviser happens to be the underlying topic of Arnsdorf’s two Zaikin exposees.
Simpson and Fusion are best known for producing the “Steele Dossier,” a much-contested 35-page document relaying information that former MI5 agent and Fusion contractor Chris Steele purportedly received from high-level Russian sources about alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, as well as possible sources of secret Russian leverage over Trump. Of course, Simpson’s attempts to advance an apparently baseless Flynn-Russia-Turkey theory that mirrors Arnsdorf’s stories during congressional testimony, could simply be a coincidence. Coincidentally or not, Simpson also appears to recite the premise of a different disputed Politico story in the course of his House testimony. “Putin seems to be very interested in the Jewish diaspora. And there seems to be, especially, the sort of Orthodox or ultra religious or conservative, and there is definitely something interesting to all that,” Simpson told the House panel. “Chabad, in particular, is a subject that is curious and interesting,” he said.
On April 9, 2017, a day before the start of Passover, Politico ran an investigative story headlined, “The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump and Putin.” The article laid out a string of tertiary connections between Chabad, the Trump campaign, and a Russian-connected business partnership called Bayrock-Sapir without establishing any real operational link between them. The story earned the condemnation of Anti-Defamation League President Jonathan Greenblatt, who alleged that it “evokes age-old myths about Jews.” At least one questionable Russia-Trump-related Politico story directly corresponds with Glenn Simpson’s own personal suspicions and beliefs, which struck the head of the ADL as being notably far removed from any kind of reality.
“You asked how I first learned about David Zaikin,” Arnsdorf wrote to Tablet by email in July 2018. “The answer is I was reporting on pro-Russian influence in Washington, and a source who I approached suggested I look at Zaikin.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with a journalist accepting information that’s freely offered to them. I did so myself in writing this story. Perhaps David Zaikin’s true quarrel is with a journalistic culture that allowed itself to become a vehicle for political fantasies and paid dirt-digging. In the age of Trump, it was certainly possible to imagine that these information channels served a necessary and even virtuous purpose, next to which it was also easy to imagine that the subjects weren’t real people anyway, and were certainly guilty of something, somewhere.
Isaac Arnsdorf didn’t make this world. As a reporter on the Washington influence industry for Politico, he had mastered a highly technical beat, gaining the sources and credibility needed to take on investigative projects of national significance. In a time when traditional hard news operations were floundering, and when web-friendly aggregation and hot takery were the easiest available path to relevance for a young writer, Arnsdorf had built his career the right way, through real and often difficult reporting. In August of 2018, Arnsdorf broke a major story about a secretive group of Trump allies who were trying to reshape the Department of Veterans Affairs from outside of government, an article that really did turn out to be one of the most important pieces of journalism in the Trump era. Why had the Zaikin stories been such a departure?
I very badly wanted to talk to Isaac Arnsdorf. He and I had each dedicated significant time and energy to figuring out the truth about David Zaikin. Perhaps we could complete each other’s picture of the man. Accounts of his period may well list Zaikin’s name alongside such luminaries as Rob Goldstone, Sam Nunberg, and other people of dubious significance who had the misfortune, self-directed or otherwise, of sharing space or oxygen with Russian agents, members of the Trump camp, or both. Of course Zaikin’s name will appear in much smaller lettering than theirs, maybe next to those of Cleta Mitchell or Svetlana Lokhova, who were similarly connected to the Trump scandals on potentially specious grounds. Zaikin was at a strata below even the saga’s Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns, blindly wandering into a drama that wasn’t his.
Maybe Arnsdorf was holding on to a key piece of clarifying evidence, or a source that couldn’t appear in print but was known to the reporter and to his outlets and to their lawyers, which would make for an airtight defense of the Zaikin stories. Despite repeated requests over the course of reporting and writing this article, Arnsdorf wouldn’t talk to me. “I declined to meet with you in person because it was clear the goal was to discuss our sourcing and, as noted, our policy is not to do that,” Arnsdorf wrote me in July of 2018. What is left is the record of my own reporting and the version of events that Politico and ProPublica published. A fair-minded reader can make their own determinations.
Or can they? Americans live in a time when there are confirmed, real-life, state-backed conspiracies against their very perception of reality. These plots have been remarkably successful: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has sped up the erosion of the country’s civic and epistemological baseline, just as email hacks and fabricated stories and oppo research-for-hire shops, along with Donald Trump’s daily attacks on “fake news,” have undermined Americans’ trust in the media and in the legitimacy and integrity of the electoral process and their democracy more generally. The concoction of conspiracy theories that appear to have made their way into key institutional structures weakens the public’s ability to recognize dangers that are entirely real, including dangers stemming from the president’s own behavior. Trump has proved willing to both create and exploit existing gaps in public trust. He is a deft manipulator of this shattered information environment, which has nullified many of the risks connected to his alleged abuses of power. At the time of his potentially illegal Hunter Biden fishing expedition, the president might have been fully cognizant of how difficult it now is to sell the American people on any of his conduct being impeachable or unambiguously criminal.
The news media has been an unlikely ally in Trump’s project. The Zaikin stories are not “fake news”–the details and characters are not invented out of whole cloth, and a lawyer would not judge them to be libelous. Then again, neither was Politico’s strange swamp of insinuations about the Chabad movement, Trump and Russia, or White House chronicler Michael Wolff’s wildly lucrative notebook dump packaged as a work of journalism, some key details of which even he admits he can’t confirm. These are hardly the only cases where the purity of a higher truth has prevailed over a more mundane or even altogether different body of facts.
The Zaikin articles motioned toward a Russian effort to launder money to Michael Flynn in cooperation with the Turkish government, executed through a Ukrainian businessman who barely anyone in Russia or Turkey-related circles had even heard of. This is no trivial assertion, from any vantage point. A powerful and sinister, if awfully vague, transnational plot—by someone, somewhere—is suggested, a reputation is jeopardized, and both the world and the media cycle move on, as if nothing particularly out of the ordinary has happened.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.