Nearly 3,000 miles from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Washington offices, another investigation into President Donald Trump is underway. This one unfolds in the public libraries and coffee shops of San Francisco, where a self-employed 40-year-old named Geoff Andersen has worked since November for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, burning through nearly $45,000 in personal savings and donations from friends and family in pursuit of hidden truths about Trump’s rise to power.
Andersen, a freelance Democratic opposition researcher who worked on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and is now between jobs, has downloaded thousands of newspaper articles dating from the 1970s, hunted down obscure court and real estate records, and is even reading a textbook on money laundering. He posts his findings on his website, offers tips to reporters and sends a weekly newsletter to about 50 subscribers; one recent installment covered everything from Trump’s 1980s dealings with former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi to his belief that Trump’s father “may have been a Soviet asset.”
Convinced that major media reporters are too overwhelmed and distracted to dig deep, Andersen looks in unusual places. His recent request for access to a long-forgotten microfiche cabinet containing old Securities and Exchange Commission records related to pre-Internet era Trump casino deals left the librarians scratching their heads.
“They had to find the key,” Andersen chuckled.
Andersen is not alone in his largely solitary quest. Countless amateur sleuths are on the case, from a short-order cook in Belfast whose research was recently cited by the Daily Beast to a Florida art teacher who tells POLITICO he is applying his pattern-recognition skills to Trump’s sprawling business empire. Undaunted by a lack of subpoena power or search warrants, and the government’s vast legal and technical expertise, countless people like these are poring through Trump’s personal and business records, as well as overlooked 2016 campaign clues. They share their findings through email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and even tips to reporters and the FBI. Most labor in obscurity, but all are motivated by the lottery-like odds of a discovery that has eluded journalists and prosecutors but which just might bring down a president.
“There are still a lot of mysteries to solve and I intend to solve them,” Andersen wrote in his newsletter earlier this month, boasting that he had been in touch with a reporter who plans to draw from his work soon.
While this sound like the pointless industry of conspiracy theorists, some legal experts, and history itself, suggest they could make a difference. Among the 15,000 pieces of mail and 6,000 telegrams the Watergate special prosecutor received during his first year on the job, according an official report, an average of three or four “substantial allegations” each month merited a deeper look.
“Sometimes they do pan out,” said Nick Akerman, a former assistant Watergate prosecutor who recalled how tipsters helped connect him to important Nixon White House sources. “Some are absolute crackpots no matter how you cut it.”
White-collar defense attorney William Jeffress said he tried to ignore the unsolicited suggestions that clogged up his email inbox when he was representing I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, during the federal investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. But Jeffress said he found that amateur bloggers and researchers sometimes turned up important data points that reporters and Washington insiders had missed.
“You’d be amazed how much information the people who spend a lot of time can dig out,” he said.
Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor and expert on conspiracy theories, said the freelance scramble for information on all-things Trump reminds him of the millions of amateur words written about everything from the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to the deaths of Elvis Presley and President John F. Kennedy.
“People are driven by big stories that have uncertain conclusions,” he said.
Several of the Trump researchers interviewed for this story said they take pains to root their work in verifiable fact and avoid building audiences with over-the-top conspiracy mongering like the work of Louise Mensch, a former British parliamentarian turned anti-Trump blogger who has made unfounded claims that a sealed indictment has been granted against Trump and that the former White House adviser Stephen Bannon may face the death penalty for treason. Their main goal is to expose actionable information for the media or even for federal investigators.
At the FBI, the notion that the public could strike pay dirt is the reason it maintains a website where incoming tips are taken seriously, law enforcement sources say. An outspoken House Intelligence Committee member, Rep. Eric Swalwell, is also eager to hear what amateurs are finding. “What else should we be pursuing?” the California Democrat asks on his website, under a banner that reads “Submit Trump-Russia Connections.”
There is no shortage of opinions about that.
In her job as managing editor at the myth-busting website Snopes, 40-year old Brooke Binkowski spends her days trying to separate facts from fiction. From her San Diego home office, Binkowski has collected 18 months of data on what she calls an onslaught of online “fake news” stories “in line with the Kremlin playbook” for sowing misinformation in the U.S. and Europe.
Binkowski has been trying to contact Mueller to share her findings. She managed to get a response from his former law firm—but not from the special counsel’s office.
“I know I sound like a bat shit kook. I don’t care,” she said. “I think we could be potentially helpful.”
So does Joseph Weinzettle, a 51-year old art teacher in Tarpon Springs, Florida. “As an artist, my thing is pattern recognition,” he explained.
In this case, Weinzettle believes he sees patterns in pro-Trump social media posts and his own online research that shows how Trump’s campaign and his businesses operate in a seamy underworld blending organized crime, money laundering and espionage. He says he’s sent “dozens” of tips to the FBI and the departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, as well as to his own local lawmakers, the national media and editorial boards, though to little effect so far.
Anyone can join the hunt—even a 28-year old Irish short-order cook like Dean Sterling Jones, who grills salmon burgers and steaks at Thyme, a restaurant in Belfast, but whose blog says his “principal activity is investigative reporting based on deep research using public records.” It only took Jones a few weeks of digging to find a couple of scoops. One of them, that former Trump business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub online details about his arrest (and subsequent acquittal) for underage prostitution, was picked up by the Daily Beast last month.
On his blog, Jones—who briefly worked as a community newspaper reporter —has also documented Wikipedia editing records that show how Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, may have used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page. He has also identified about a dozen posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarize content from news outlets including CNN, USA Today and the New York Times.
“This is simply a hobby that I do in my spare time,” between the breakfast and dinner shifts, Jones explained.
The armchair Trump researchers may not appear on television or enjoy front-page bylines. But some generate loyal readership for their work.
One of them goes by the Reddit handle of PostimusMaximus, and declined to give his real name for fear of cyber attacks. Initially focused on trying to vet the accuracy of the controversial dossier on Trump written by a former British intelligence operative, his Reddit page has grown into an extensively detailed timeline of the Trump-Russia saga that reflected countless hours of work. (Sample entry: “Starting in 2014, Trump oddly Tweeted Nine Times to Deleted Russian Twitter Accounts About Running for President.”) It now covers more than 40,000 words under 56 chapter headings. (“There is quite a bit still missing,” he apologizes.)
With fewer than 9,000 subscribers on Reddit and only a few thousand Twitter followers, PostimusMaximus does not command a mass audience. But the followers he does have are devoted ones: “I was starting to worry they’d gotten you,” one reader wrote after a recent gap between updates.
Back in San Francisco, Andersen fears time is running out. His dwindling funds will only carry him to August 31.
Facing that deadline, he’s been meeting with journalists, including the Center for Investigative Reporting, to discuss handing off his unfinished work.
He’s also considered passing his findings along to Mueller’s team, though he said he’s wary of the professional Trump investigators who work in federal law enforcement. He distrusts the FBI and doubts that Mueller, as a former FBI director, will be fully transparent with his findings if they raise national security concerns. (Mueller’s office and the FBI declined to comment for this story.)
“I don’t think from the outside perspective looking at it you can trust any of the institutional actors to provide a full and complete reckoning of what the hell is going on,” Andersen said.
For now, Andersen said, it’s a matter of priorities, which currently include re-examining a 2000s-era Trump investment on the obscure Caribbean island of Canouan.
“I’m trying to triage which things I have to get done,” he said, “before the pencil has to go down.”