PHOTO: Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin
[This feature has been updated on Thursday with more information bolstering the possible credibility of the evidence of links between Donald Trump and Russia — see US Feature: Update — “Russia Compromises Trump”]
In the latest escalation of the controversy around Russian interference in the 2016 US election — and possibly the incoming Trump Administration — an explosive two-page synopsis has summarized claims that Russia has compromised the President-elect over his financial and sexual affairs.
[Editor’s Note: BuzzFeed, the first outlet to publish the synopsis, has the other memoranda. These are being reviewed.]
Dated 20 June 2016, the synopsis asserts, “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.”
Trump declined Russian enticements of real estate deals, but “he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals”.
Meanwhile, a “former top Russian intelligence officer” said the Russian security service FSB compromised Trump during his visits to Moscow, with proof of his “perverted sexual acts” arranged and monitored by the service.
Russian intelligence also compiled a dossier on Hillary Clinton based on “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls”.
The synopsis is drawn from a 35-page compilation of research memoranda, initially commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans as the President-elect became a front-runner in the 2016 primaries and then by Democrats. The work was carried out by Christopher Steele, a former operative of the British intelligence service MI6 who spent two decades on Russian intelligence matters — he is now with Orbis, a London-based firm that gathers information on Russia for corporate clients.
Some of the memoranda began circulating last summer. With Trump now the Republican nominee for the Presidency, US intelligence agencies began checking some of the sources, including a “former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe”. Knowledge of the investigation began to spread: in October, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, wrote FBI Director James Comey, “It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”
As intelligence agencies briefed Trump and President Obama last Friday about the evidence of Russia’s hacking and influence campaign during the election, they also gave a summary of the memoranda to Trump, Obama, and eight Congressional leaders. This did not have details of sources and methods in the memoranda, but was still so sensitive that it was not included in the classified report about Russian hacking that was more widely distributed.
Trump calls on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails
The synopsis mentions seven sources.
Three — a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure”, a “former top-level Russian intelligence officer”, and a “senior Russian financial officer” set out the Putin-directed operation to cultivate Trump. The “former top-level Russian intelligence officer” also describes the dossier that could compromise or discredit Hillary Clinton, dating back to President Bill Clinton’s activities in the 1990s.
A “close associate of Trump who managed his trips to Moscow” confirms Russia’s passing of information to the Trump campaign and mentions the Russian offer of real estate deals.
Two — one whose identity is concealed and a female member of hotel staff — as well as the “former top-level Russian intelligence officer” describe Trump’s “perverted” conduct with prostitutes in the Presidential Suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Moscow, under surveillance by the Russian security service FSB.
A “senior Kremlin official” says the Clinton dossier is handled personnel by Dmitri Peskov, the chief Kremlin spokesman.
Is Trump Compromised?
The two-page synopsis and other memoranda establishes links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. However, the synopsis does not present any case of Trump or any of his staff carrying out an action at the behest of the Russian Government or in coordination with the Kremlin.
However, the document does establish a vested interest of both the Russian Government, through its influence in the US election, and Trump to conceal any indication of the relationship. It also is clear in its belief in the potential of Moscow to compromise Trump further through blackmail with the proof of the President-elect’s “sexual activity”.
Beyond the information in the synopsis, parallel sources — including CIA officers and another former British intelligence officer — say there are multiple audio and videos of Trump, not only in Moscow but also in St. Petersburg. The CIA officers say the material is “credible”.
Are the Allegations True?
Both Donald Trump and the Kremlin have tried to discredit the report or at least spread doubt, with each quoting the other:
Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is "A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE." Very unfair!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
However, the task of wishing away the intelligence as false — using the contemporary label of “fake news” — is far more difficult than the dismissal of the claimed information of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that spurred the 2003 Iraq War.
In that case, much of the claim relied on a single, suspect human source. In this case, there are multiple sources across dozens of memoranda.
Trump and the Russians need to establish that all, or at least most, of those sources are lying or mistaken. Alternatively, they could argue that the British intelligence officer and the private US intelligence firm that initially gathered the information are lying or mistaken.
The US intelligence community’s assessment of the past reliability of the former British intelligence officer — and its willingness to take this report to the President, Trump, and the Congressional leaders — indicate its confidence that the evidence is solid enough to warrant further investigation.
CNN’s checking of the memoranda adds to this range of officials standing against an easy dismissal of the claims: “In preparing this story, CNN has spoken to multiple high ranking intelligence, administration, congressional and law enforcement officials, as well as foreign officials and others in the private sector with direct knowledge of the memos.”
In an opening illustration of the Russian State’s response and the challenge it faces, Sputnik News has tried the line that the intelligence bulletin board 4Chan created the hoax claim over Trump’s sexual activity in Moscow. The outlet offers no support for this, it does not explain confront the three sources cited in the synopsis, and it does not recognize that the memoranda come from a private US intelligence agency rather than US or UK Government intelligence agenices.
The salvation for Trump is that the allegation are limited by the inability for the sources to come out publicly to bolster them. That inability to present the witnesses for the case gives the President-elect some space with the public — whether it does so with those who have seen further classified detail is a different matter.
Trump v. US Intelligence Services
Although investigation of the memoranda has not definitely established if the Trump campaign knew of their existence, it is likely — given word spreading about them in Washington’s political circles in summer 2016 — that the President-elect and his team were aware.
Concern over exposure could thus have motivated Trump’s campaign against the US intelligence services, spurred by evidence of Russian hacking and influence operations, after the election. The intent would be to intimidate the services into not pursuing an investigation or withholding any outcome — and, if they insisted on disclosing material and analysis, discrediting them in advance.
If this was the case, Trump’s tactics have backfired dramatically. The pressure on the intelligence services has only spurred them to move ahead with the enquiry, and to leak findings either directly to the media or to confidants who would do so.
Some outlets have already jumped to speculation about whether Trump could be impeached if the veracity of the memoranda is established.
Even if the legal conundrum can be resolved — can you impeach a President for acts committed before he took office? — it is too soon to jump to this scenario. No impeachable offense, such as the handover of sensitive information from the Trump campaign to Moscow, is established in the synopis. The two pages merely establish the potential for Trump acting on the behalf of Moscow or being manipulated by the Russians.
Instead, the immediate effect will be to curb Trump’s power even before Inauguration Day. Even if the President-elect can convince many among the public that there is nothing to see — or that he is a victim of the media and political opponents, he is unlikely to get far with leaders in Congress and members of his own agencies, including the intelligence services. The growing belief in the suspect position of the President is likely to spur further opposition to accepting him as a reliable Chief Executive, and to endorse actions will be suspected of complicity with a powerful outside actor.