There's an enormous amount we don't yet know about CNN's bombshell report that US intelligence agencies believe Russia has "compromising personal and financial information" on President-elect Donald Trump and that his campaign was in direct contact with with Russian intermediaries before the election.
We don't know who CNN's sources are or if those people's information is accurate. We don't know which Trump aides were allegedly dealing with the Russians or whether those Russians worked for Vladimir Putin's government. And we don't know the answer to the biggest question of them all: just what does Russia have on Trump?
"So while people are being delicate about discussing wholly unproven allegations, the document is at the front of everyone's minds as they ponder the question: Why is Trump so insistent about vindicating Russia from the hacking charges that everyone else seems to accept?" Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quina Jurecic wrote in a post for the Lawfare blog.
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There is one thing, though, that we can say with absolute certainty. If the allegations are true, they will spark criminal investigations and the types of Congressional probes that could end Trump's presidency before it fully begins. If the allegations are false, Trump will accurately be able to say that he'd been slandered by a politicized intelligence community looking for ways of undermining his legitimacy.
Trump's weeks-long war with the CIA means that this kind of moment may have been inevitable: after weeks of quiet sniping, sources inside the agency or familiar with its work have responded by leaking something truly and genuinely explosive.
A lot of people have joked about whether Russia had something on Trump. Turns out that it might
Here's what we know. Late on Tuesday afternoon, CNN reported that the heads of America's top intelligence agencies had showed Trump evidence that the Russians had compromising information on him. The allegations came from unsubstantiated memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative that had been in circulation since last summer but that US spy agencies had only recently deemed "credible."
According to CNN, Sen. John McCain passed a full set of the memos to FBI Director Jim Comey last month. The New York Times reported that top intelligence officials have also briefed President Obama, the top leaders of the House and Senate, and the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the information from the memos even though none of it has been proven true:
The decision of top intelligence officials to give the president, the president-elect and the so-called Gang of Eight — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.
After the CNN report, Buzzfeed published the actual dossier, which includes the allegation that Russia's FSB, the successor to the KGB, believed it had "compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him." More specifically, the dossier alleges that Russia had information that Trump engaged in "perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB" and had been recorded having sex with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.
My colleague Zack Beauchamp notes that there are three other less salacious but potentially more damaging explanations of what Russia may have on Trump, and of why the president-elect would have have been so worried about its release. First, proof that Trump isn't as rich as he claims. Second, evidence that Trump's campaign directly coordinated with a Russian government hell-bent on ensuring his election. And third, that Trump's business dealings with Russia -- and the amount he may owe Russian investors in his company -- is far, far greater than we think.
Trump took to Twitter Tuesday night to flatly deny the CNN report (and later take a shot at BuzzFeed):
It may be a while until we know if Trump is right or if the CNN report is accurate. In the meantime, the president-elect has a different problem entirely: He's taken so many jarringly pro-Kremlin positions that something that would seem too ludicrous for Hollywood -- Russian spies preparing to potentially blackmail an American president -- seems like a semi-plausible explanation.
Trump's embrace of Vladimir Putin — and war on the CIA — starts to make sense if you believe he was worried about being blackmailed by Russia
One of the enduring mysteries of the 2016 election is how Republican voters who have for decades venerated Ronald Reagan for defeating the Soviet Union got so strongly behind a pro-Russian candidate like Trump.
During the campaign, the president-elect praised Putin's strength as a leader, brushed aside concerns about Putin's abysmal human rights record, hinted that he might recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea and talked about leaving NATO entirely or opting to ignore America's legal obligation to defend any NATO member who comes under Russian attack.
Trump's pro-Russian positioning goes all the way back to the Republican convention, when his campaign softened the party platform's language on Ukraine to remove all reference about providing weapons to Kiev so it could protect itself from Russia. A short time later, Trump hinted to ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he was fine with Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.
"The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were," Trump said.
One of Trump's former campaign managers, meanwhile, had been a paid consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine like its former president, Viktor Yanukovych. The campaign manager, Paul Manafort, later resigned as part of an internal campaign shakeup.
Trump himself has spent months praising Putin. "I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he's getting an 'A' and our president is not doing so well," Trump said during an NBC forum in September.
He has also effusively praised Russia's bombing campaign in Syria: "What's wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don't have to spend a million dollars a bomb?" Never mind that Russian bombs have targeted the relatively moderate opposition more than ISIS, and that the point has been to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. With Russian help, Assad's forces just finished reconquering the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
Trump's rhetoric about Russia has been even more startling since November 8. He has spent weeks mocking the CIA's conclusion that Putin tried to interfere in the election to help him win the White House by pointing to the spy agency's faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. When US spies personally briefed Trump on their findings about Russia, he issued a remarkable statement that barely mentioned Russia. Instead, Trump lumped it in with China and other unnamed countries and outside groups as potential perpetrators.
Trump's complete refusal to admit that Russia interfered in the election has baffled and infuriated many Republican lawmakers, who have called for Congressional investigations into Moscow's activities during the campaign and condemned Putin as a quasi-dictator. Just this week, five Republican senators said they'd back a Democratic bill that would make it harder for Trump to lift the punishing US sanctions on Russia.
It would make a bit more sense if Russia did in fact have something on Trump that was so big and so embarrassing that he would do Putin's bidding to ensure it never became public. Given that Trump has survived the release of an audio recording of him bragging about sexual assault, it would presumably have to be something huge.
It's hard to predict exactly what will come next. Congressional Republicans say they want to probe Russia's interference in the election, but it's not clear if this will be enough to make them stop consistently rejecting Democratic calls to create bipartisan investigative panels modeled on the 9/11 commission. Regardless of whether the CNN story holds up, the leak is sure to further fuel Trump's war with the nation's intelligence agencies. Given the array of threats facing the US, that may be one of the most dangerous outcomes of all.