One of the better-connected, more knowledgeable people on the ties between the Kremlin and Trump Tower—other than the investigators currently working full-time on the topic—is a ramen shop owner named Jeff Jetton.
Over the past few months, Jetton, who helped found the popular Washington, D.C. noodle restaurant Toki Underground, has inserted himself smack-dab into the investigation of possible Trump-Russia connections.
Jetton is one of a number of average American citizens who have become Russia whisperers, trying to connect the dots using publicly available information—while actually surfacing legitimate, independently verifiable tips.
Feeling disillusioned after Trump’s inauguration, Jetton posted a story about Russia on his Facebook account. A friend commented that he had known a figure in the Trump orbit personally. Jetton started reaching out.
“If you’re good at piecing things together, why don’t you just do some of this shit yourself?” said Jetton, who spoke to The Daily Beast wearing an olive-drab Harley Davidson jacket with a #1 patch made out of an American flag on his right shoulder. “I just started reaching out to people. I’m not really a journalist, but I sort of used this social media, blogging environment that I belong to, to start talking to people conversationally.”
His disarming manner seemed to win people over. Jetton started texting Carter Page, an early Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, and interviewed him about evolution for a pop-culture blog he’s affiliated with, Brightest Young Things. The interview gave an early hint of Page’s defense over allegations that he was a potential link between Team Trump and the Kremlin: that he’s the victim of a neo-Red Scare.
“There’s this longstanding predisposition against Russia,” Page told Jetton, comparing his treatment to that of the McCarthy hearings.
Jetton sent a photo of a dog to Sergei Millian, an individual The Washington Post identified as SOURCE D in the Steele dossier, a private intelligence file compiled by a former British spy that includes allegations about the Russian government’s ties to Trump. Before long, Jetton was interviewing Millian for Brightest Young Things. Millian has not done any other sit-down interviews since the Trump election, and has turned down a request by The Daily Beast to do so.
“I have nothing to do with the dossier. Nothing to do with the people whoever wrote this,” Millian told Jetton. “Absolute denial.”
Jetton also began a correspondence with Paul Manafort’s alleged one-time travel partner to Ukraine after finding her name mentioned in one of the Manafort daughter’s hacked texts. (“Did you get my info from Jeff Jetton?” she asked when The Daily Beast reached out. “It’s OK if you did.”). He obtained Carter Page’s undergraduate thesis and spoke with his thesis adviser at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“You know like in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors test the electric fences in different places? You've got to do that,” Jetton told The Daily Beast.
Jetton began blasting out contact information for relevant figures to journalists covering the Trump-Russia issue; flagging legal documents for reporters all across the country; and even making his own newsletter in which he summarized his research and findings.
In a phone call with New York-based lawyers for a story I was pursuing, one of the lawyers asked what my source was for a particular tip. I told them I couldn’t say.
“Is he a restaurateur, by any chance?” one of the lawyers asked.
I responded that I don’t discuss my sources.
“Jetton really gets around,” the lawyer responded.
And not just in political circles. His restaurant, Toki Underground, is known as D.C.’s first ramen noodle restaurant and opened in 2009. The dimly lit, fashionable spot seats just around two dozen people and resides on the second floor of a building in Washington’s H St. NE neighborhood. In 2016, it was named one of the city’s 100 best restaurants by Washingtonian magazine.
He enjoys motorcycling and is on an extended days-long trip on the road now. He’s an investor in various trendy restaurants, living in Brooklyn but commuting to D.C. often. Hailing from Newport Beach, California, he looks like more of a hipster creative-industry type—scraggly facial hair, large, black-rim glasses—than a geopolitical investigator. Yet his non-work hours have become consumed with his hobby: the Russia-Trump issue.
“I started looking at this overall Trump and Russia and the U.S. situation. and started doing research. And then I just started reaching out to journalists to share information, and as many as I could find who were investigative journalists looking at Trump and Russia,” he said. “Some of the information I had seemed to be useful to people.”
Most citizen sleuths haven’t been so successful. Amateur investigators can make mistakes, make assumptions, and can fall prey to conspiracy theories—such as the idea that the CIA hacked the Democratic Party, then framed Russia for it.
“I know that a fairly large number of people have approached both committees with leads and tips. The staff has been challenged to keep up with them,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia. “But we do need to be careful here.”
There is a danger of thinking everything is proof of a Russian conspiracy, a la Louise Mensch, a former British MP who has been a relentless social media presence on the Trump-Russia issues, and has sometimes made wild claims. Buzzfeed recently reported had accused at least 210 people and organizations of being under Russian government influence.
“As helpful as the helpful people are, the unhelpful people are extremely unhelpful. There’s a danger here because conspiracy is easy and distracts by putting conspiracy at the same level as legitimate investigation,” said Naveed Jamali, who once assisted the FBI as a double agent after the Russian government tried to recruit him as an asset in the 2000s. He is now a frequent presence on Twitter, tweeting regularly about the Russia issue.
But when amateur investigators rely on public, verifiable information to push investigators and reporters in the right direction, they can be a real asset—and examples abound.
Julian Russo and Matthew Termine, two lawyers in New York City, began digging into Paul Manafort’s real estate dealings, and posted the results on their website. They found that Manafort had purchased real estate without financing, then borrowed large amounts against those properties.
Their discovery of Manafort’s loans from another former Trump adviser became major news, and their work led to follow-on stories and citations by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
The loans he made immediately after stepping down as Trump’s campaign chairman, a role which he took with no pay, the New York Times noted, raised questions about whether his decision to borrow money from lenders with Trump ties was related to his campaign position.
“[Manafort] derided the interest that his finances had generated in the news media and among do-it-yourself researchers, some of whom have even set up a website that dissects his loans,” the Times wrote.
These are ordinary men and women enraptured by the Russia scandal, captivated by a story with the potential intrigue of the JFK assassination and the ethical problems of the Watergate scandal, all mixed in with an interactive reality show.
It also hints at the enormous increases in personal power over the past few decades and the enormous knowledge available at each of our fingertips. Citizens had to rely on the Watergate Committee for answers in the 1970s, but nowadays legal documents, schedules, social media accounts make some investigative work accessible for the average individual.
Random tips from people on the internet are usually not to be trusted. And the volume of hate mail or fan mail that a reporter receives is much higher than the volume of tips. But sometimes there are shining gems from individuals who have done their research, and their tips pan out.
Abby Hertz founded LUST NYC, an erotic, eight-course dinner party where food is served off naked bodies. She’s also deeply interested in any possible connections between Team Trump and Russia.
“Even my cousin in Indiana and her friends are obsessed with Trump/Russia. It’s better than Netflix, it’s a huge deal because our democracy was hijacked, and it opened up a very deep rabbit hole of corruption that already existed in a ‘sexy’ way that the public could delve into,” Hertz said. “It’s our first quasi-augmented reality political show…which is I guess what happens when you elect a reality TV star.”
Her close attention to the activities of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia led her to notice that Jamali was going to be briefing some of the committee’s members, an event that had gone unnoticed by the press. Her tip to The Daily Beast led to further reporting, which revealed that the committee’s Republicans would be boycotting the briefing.
These examples of ordinary Americans contributing to the Russia investigation, without falling prey to conspiracy or CAPS-LOCK diatribes, suggests a productive way that citizens can contribute to the ongoing story.
“It’s not that hard. People are generally willing to talk as long as you’re not insulting them to their face,” Jetton said, noting that he didn’t even have a Twitter account until January. “The internet just allows you much more access to information.”