Ten days before he’s sworn in as president, Donald Trump is facing a potential crisis amid reports that U.S. intelligence officials delivered a report to the president-elect last week outlining allegations that Russia could have compromising information about him.
Although the details of these revelations remain murky and unverified, their publication Tuesday night, on the eve of Trump’s first news conference since July, is upsetting any post-election honeymoon and forcing him to confront what is, at best, an uncomfortable public relations fiasco and potentially a new geopolitical pressure point that could cast a shadow on his incoming administration.
“FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT,” Trump tweeted at 8:19 p.m. Tuesday, more than two hours after the first reports began to surface.
Over the past week, Trump has criticized leaks about assessments from U.S. intelligence agencies. He had previously dismissed the FBI’s, Director of National Intelligence’s and CIA’s focus on Russia’s election meddling as a “witch hunt” and had been publicly skeptical of the report’s conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed an influence campaign in order to benefit the Republican nominee last year, unwilling to give credence to anything that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory.
On Tuesday evening, multiple reports attributed to anonymous sources contended that the nation’s four top intelligence chiefs informed President Barack Obama and Trump of allegations that Russia had collected compromising and tawdry personal information about the president-elect. A two-page synopsis also included allegations of a running exchange of information during the campaign between Trump allies and Russian government intermediaries.
After the first report surfaced, BuzzFeed published the longer, unverified document that formed the basis of the two-page synopsis to the official report, which had been classified, that details the kompromat a Russian term for compromising material in graphic terms.
Sean Spicer, who will serve as Trump’s White House press secretary, called BuzzFeed “pathetic” in a tweet Tuesday night, part of a coordinated pushback from allies inside and outside Trump Tower.
Senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway was taping an interview on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” on Tuesday as the news broke and dismissed it as “unconfirmed” reports based on “unnamed sources.” And she pushed back when Meyers asserted that Trump himself had been presented the classified information as part of his intelligence briefing last Friday. “He has said he is not aware of that,” she said.
Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization attorney who the unverified report alleges met with Russian government representatives in Prague, tweeted a photo of his passport Tuesday night with the caption: “I have never been to Prague in my life.”
“The entire report is inaccurate,” he told POLITICO. “I have never met with any Russian, Kremlin officials. I have never been to Russia.
“It’s just another attempt to malign Mr. Trump, and I find it interesting how they released this information one day prior to Mr. Trump’s press conference,” he continued.
“No substantiation, no confirmation, rife with misspellings,” longtime informal Trump adviser Roger Stone told POLITICO about the memo detailing the allegations. “This is a bad joke.”
“This is just a continuing meme. How long can we beat this horse before it becomes clear that there is a clear lack of any proof of any of these allegations?” Stone said. “And now they get more personal?”
Stone himself has been in the middle of the Russia controversy after predicting over the summer that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, would face hard times in the fall.
“Trust me, it will soon the [sic] Podesta’s time in the barrel,” Stone tweeted in August. Stone had also said he had been in touch, through mutual acquaintances, with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
In October, WikiLeaks released Podesta’s hacked emails, in a breach that American intelligence agencies believe was orchestrated by the Russian government.
“I was told, as I’ve said 100 times, from a mutual friend that Assange had politically damaging material. Unspecified political dynamite. I was not told that he had hacked John Podesta’s emails,” Stone said on Tuesday.
Trump, who survived a devastating scandal a month before the election after a tape surfaced of him bragging about his celebrity enabling him to get away with grabbing women’s genitals, has had remarkable success pushing past controversies that would have sunk more conventional politicians and in counterpunching his adversaries.
But this situation is different he’s battling the nation’s intelligence officers, not rival politicians. Now, it’s not his campaign in turmoil but a nascent administration less than two weeks from inheriting the White House. And the stakes go beyond politics. With a matter of national security and geopolitical importance, Trump’s uncanny ability to will his own, preferred alternative reality into being may meet its limits.
“I have no idea with Trump. You used to be able to say, ‘I think I know how this ends.’ But there’s no way to know now,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist.
Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton ally and the president of the Center for American Progress, said Tuesday evening the new allegations should be fully investigated.
“The intelligence dossier presents profoundly disturbing allegations; ones that should shake every American to the core,” she said in a statement.
The new charges risk inflaming bipartisan concerns about Trump’s talk of a new U.S.-Russian partnership.
Shrugging off the worst tensions between the two countries since the Cold War, Trump has long asserted that the U.S. and Russia can “get along great.” Trump says the two countries can cooperate against Islamic terrorism, questions the value of the NATO alliance, and has said he would consider lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Trump has also praised Putin as a strong and savvy leader, saying he would bond with an authoritarian president widely seen as a villain in Western capitals.
Those views buck both Democratic and Republican consensus “somewhat out of the mainstream,” as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker described them on CNN earlier Tuesday.
That has led some members of Congress and foreign policy experts to wonder whether Trump has an undisclosed motive for seeking Putin’s approval.
The new allegations will provide fodder for critics hoping to block Trump’s planned realignment with Russia. The critics fear Trump could grant Moscow a freer hand in Syria, recognize Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, lift U.S. sanctions, and even call for a reduced NATO presence in Eastern Europe.
At a minimum, they are likely to make for uncomfortable moments at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Several Russia hawks from both parties on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were already primed to grill Tillerson on his own relationship with Putin with whom he struck massive energy deals as CEO of ExxonMobil as well as Trump’s plans for U.S.-Russia policy.
While the allegations were being characterized as a bombshell, former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid telegraphed knowledge of the memo before the election in a letter dated Oct. 30 to FBI Director James Comey. Reid wrote, “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, 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.”
Adam Jentleson, who served as a top Reid aide, tweeted on Tuesday night, in all-capital letters, “THIS IS WHAT HARRY REID WAS REFERRING TO.” Jentleson later said in a statement, “Senator Reid’s letters and statements speak for themselves.”
While Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, was grinding through the first day of a long confirmation hearing, lawmakers in another hearing room were questioning Comey. Asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) if his agency was currently investigating any possible contact between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, Comey demurred, saying he couldn’t comment on the nature of any current investigations.
Hours later, the reports detailing the addendum to the official report revealed allegations of an ongoing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.