The 35-page memo outlining Russia's collection of allegedly compromising financial and sexual information on President-elect Donald Trump, which could be used to blackmail him, and his campaign's ostensible collusion with Russian intelligence agencies, reads like a lurid Hollywood thriller. You can almost see the marquee: Explosive! Shocking! The dossier you don't want your children to read!
To Trump's many critics, the allegations explain why the New York businessman has been so admiring of Russian president Vladimir Putin and why he had been so persistently skeptical of the intelligence community's claims that Russia tried to interfere in the recent election. But several intelligence officials, speaking on condition that they not be named, expressed doubt about the veracity of the dossier, versions of which, they noted, have been floating around news organizations for weeks, without having been corroborated. "It doesn't even pass the giggle test," said a former senior CIA official known both for his skepticism of Trump and his agency's estimates.
The intelligence officials who shared the memo with Trump and President Obama last week said that none of the salacious allegations of sexual misconduct or compromising financial connections has been substantiated. The memo itself, several stories indicate, was not originally classified. It was compiled by a former British spy named Christopher Steele who was allegedly paid by Trump's GOP primary opponents to explore his ties to Russia. Steele's dossier was summarized for Trump and Obama in an appendix to a secret intelligence report.
CNN reported that Steele's previous work was deemed credible but also noted that the veracity of the allegations had not been confirmed either by CNN or by Buzzfeed.com, which initially published the entire memo, or, for that matter, by any other news organization. Nevertheless, Lawfare, a respected national security blog, urged readers to take the allegations seriously, if only because the government itself seemed to be doing so. "The President and President-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility," wrote Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic—all employees of the Brookings Institution. Quoting CNN, Lawfare also noted that Arizona senator John McCain gave the document to FBI director James Comey on December 9 so that the charges could be investigated. The Guardian and the New York Times both reported that the FBI had secured in October a warrant to gather information about possible ties between Russian banks and oligarchs and Trump campaign officials.
All of this infuriated Trump. At his first news conference since winning the November election, he denounced the allegations as "phony," "nonsense," "fake news" and, a Nazi-style smear concocted by "sick people." On Twitter, he called it "a political witch hunt." Trump also took aim at two of his frequent targets—the intelligence agencies, which he suggested may have leaked the document to undermine his presidency, and the media, CNN and Buzzfeed in particular. Lashing out at CNN as "fake news," he declined to let a reporter from the network ask a question at his news conference. But he also said that he has ordered his intelligence-agency nominees to conduct a 90-day investigation of hacking by Russia and others, the effect of which may be not only to keep the story alive but to intensify what is becoming a bitter feud between the president-elect and the intelligence community. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. denied that intelligence officials had leaked the dossier and stressed that the agencies had "not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable." He said that he had shared it with policymakers to give them "the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security."
Apart from the indignant denials by both Moscow and Trump, there are other reasons to doubt the memo's veracity. First, at least one of its allegations has already been debunked. Michael Cohen, one of Trump's lawyers, whom the dossier alleged had met with Russian operatives in Prague in August or September, asserted in a tweet Tuesday that he had never been to Prague "in my life." Apparently he has shared, or promised to share, his passport pages with officials.
Second, though Trump has traveled to Moscow several times to explore real estate deals and to oversee the Miss Universe competition, he claims never to have completed any major contracts there. Donald Trump Jr. once said in an interview that Russian money was important to the Trump family business, but the president-elect has repeatedly denied that claim.
Third, though Trump has consistently praised Putin as a strong leader and argued that America and Russia could work together to fight ISIS, his stance is not dissimilar to Obama's, who has permitted Moscow to take the lead in Syria, and to sell arms and nuclear technology to Iran in exchange for Russian support for his nuclear deal with Tehran.
Fourth, Trump's apparent bromance with Putin and his pro-Russian rhetoric are belied by his appointment of hardliners to key posts in his national security team. Retired Marine general James Mattis, nominated as secretary of defense, has spoken often of his opposition to Russia's seizure of Crimea and his concern about Russia's aggressive behavior in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Retired marine general John F. Kelly, the former head of the United States Southern Command whom Trump has chosen to lead the Department of Homeland Security, is another frequent Putin critic. Ditto Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, Trump's choice to head the CIA, not to mention former Indiana senator Dan Coats, whom Trump has nominated as director of national intelligence. Former army lieutenant-general Mike Flynn, soon to be Trump's national security advisor, has been criticized for having recently attended a conference sponsored by a pro-Russian TV network, RT, and for having sat next to Putin at a lavish dinner. But Flynn has harsh words for Russia and its leader in his 2016 book The Field of Fight, in which he calls Russia and Iran key members of an "enemy alliance," part of a "working coalition" against which Washington has been at war. Though secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil, has done lucrative deals in Russia and was awarded a medal by Putin, he, too, expressed concern about Russian aims and conduct during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
"Trump knows that Putin is a thug," said one veteran intelligence official. "So is it wise to denounce your adversary as a thug? Or is it smarter to embrace him, pull him close to you, and then punch him in the nose?"
Still, Trump's fiery rhetoric and bombast at his press conference, including his threat to exclude CNN from future press conferences, all but overshadowed his major policy shift. While Trump had no trouble before or after his election blasting Hillary Clinton based on information that Russia hacked from the Democratic National Committee, he acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that Russia was, in fact, responsible for the hack, even as he added that other states had also hacked American targets. Trump could counter claims about secret deals with Russia by releasing his tax returns—as every other president before him has done—and providing more information about the financial underpinnings of his sprawling business empire, but he has refused to do so. His supporters cheer such stonewalling as tough, though his positions seem likely to ensure that rumors about his financial dealings will continue to swirl long after he is sworn in as the nation's 45th president. And the country seems destined to remain as politically polarized as ever.