Well, that’s a heck of a story to wake up to:
During a special briefing last Friday, leaders of the intelligence community gave President-elect Donald Trump a synopsis of unsubstantiated and salacious allegations that Russian operatives had obtained potentially compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect, a U.S. official confirmed Tuesday.
I gather that everyone who’s anyone in Washington has read the memo containing these allegations, but no one thought it was worth publishing (until now).
Some thoughts, in random order:
1. It looks as if the first publication to write about this was Mother Jones, on October 31. Here’s how they put it:
And a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence tells Mother Jones that in recent months he provided the bureau with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump—and that the FBI requested more information from him.
Let’s call the “former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” Dr. Spook, for short. Was Dr. Spook shopping this to every publication in the US? Or just to Mother Jones? Maybe Mother Jones was the only publication willing to publish it? Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek also seems to have used the memos in his reporting. Did Dr. Spook fax his memos to every journalist in Washington?
2. The story as it’s now being presented is that this became newsworthy because Trump himself had been briefed about it. Who leaked the story that he’d been briefed about it, and why? Why now? Apparently, “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” told CNN about this. How many people would have direct knowledge of these briefings in the first place? Why didn’t any of these leaking briefers think to come forward with this before the election, given that everyone in Washington apparently knew about this?
3. As Lawfare blog puts it,
… it is significant that the document contains highly specific allegations, many of which are the kind of facts it should be possible to prove or disprove. This is a document about meetings that either took place or did not take place, stays in hotels that either happened or didn’t, travel that either happened or did not happen. It should be possible to know whether at least some of these allegations are true or false.
If Dr. Spook was passing these memos to every journalist and politician in Washington as early as October 31, at least a few of the key points should have been substantiated by now, wouldn’t you think?
4. John Schindler of 20Committee says that the “GOP was informed back in the spring that Trump was a 1-man FSB kompromat machine come to life. They did nothing. This is on them now.” Was this circulating as early as last spring, then? And no one has made any progress since then in substantiating or discrediting it?
5. Presumably everyone in Hillary’s camp also knew about it, too: It was an oppo research briefing, right? I wonder what kept her from bringing it up?
… the documents reached the top of the FBI by December. Senator John McCain, who was informed about the existence of the documents separately by an intermediary from a western allied state, dispatched an emissary overseas to meet the source and then decided to present the material to Comey in a one-on-one meeting on 9 December, according to a source aware of the meeting. The documents, which were first reported on last year by Mother Jones, are also in the hands of officials in the White House.
McCain is not thought to have made a judgment on the reliability of the documents but was sufficiently impressed by the source’s credentials to feel obliged to pass them to the FBI.
Who is this source? And who’s the Guardian’s source for this story, I wonder? The point of sending an emissary overseas to meet the source is to ensure that only he and the emissary knew of it. So I assume McCain authorized this leak. Why would McCain leak to the Guardian, though? Why not at least leak to a US publication?
7. The Guardian claims that as early as last summer, the FBI applied FISA warrant to monitor four members of the Trump team “suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials.” If so — what’s up with the FBI?
8. If Trump’s the victim of a disinformation campaign, who’s behind it? Is this the intel community’s response to Trump’s claim that they have “no clue?” Hillary’s revenge?
9. It doesn’t help when yet again, Trump replies using exactly the same language the Kremlin does:
10. I don’t understand how our Deep State works. Don’t we have spies of our own in Russia? Why do we need Dr. Spook to tell us this? Why is this only being reported now?
My verdict: I’ve got no idea what’s going on, but this seems fishy.
That said: That people will believe it is Trump’s fault. His behavior toward Putin has been so sycophantic and bizarre that even an extraordinarily weird story like this sounds plausible. If Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” convinced a significant number of Americans that he was a Muslim, the same phenomenon will be at work here — even if these memos prove to be a complete fabrication and fantasy.
It’s entirely plausible to imagine that Trump enjoyed the company of ladies of poor repute when he was in Russia. No one can say, with a straight face, “That’s ridiculous. Donald Trump is an upright and responsible married man and a faithful husband. He would never consort with Slavic hookers.” Exactly no one would be surprised if he had, and exactly no one would be surprised that the Russians taped the encounter.
Trump’s eagerness to adopt the Kremlin’s line in matters of foreign policy and his general mien of moral incontinence will be enough to convince a significant number of Americans that all of these allegations are true.
It won’t be enough for Trump to Tweet indignantly and wait for the media to bore with the story. It won’t. We’ll hear of nothing but this for years to come, I reckon.
What do you make of it?
UPDATE: The Trump Dossier: Dynamite or Disinformation? makes the skeptical case better than I did, and concludes:
In the absence of any evidence, this will do nothing but widen the dangerous divide within American society.
And here’s the irony: that’s exactly what the Kremlin wants. Whether damning proof of complicity with an antagonistic foreign power, or a piece of raw anti-Trump disinformation, at present this cache of documents is probably more effective than any number of hours of programming by Russia’s RT television station – which emerged as the star of the recent and deeply flawed open source on the hacking case – in turning America against itself.