Earlier this evening, just before Barack Obama delivered his farewell address, three disturbing reports emerged — in rapid succession. Let’s break them down.
First, CNN reported that intelligence officials gave Donald Trump classified documents showing there are allegations that Russian intelligence officials “claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”
The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible. The FBI is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
One reason the nation’s intelligence chiefs took the extraordinary step of including the synopsis in the briefing documents was to make the President-elect aware that such allegations involving him are circulating among intelligence agencies, senior members of Congress and other government officials in Washington, multiple sources tell CNN.
This synopsis apparently referenced a number of information sources, including a “dossier” that has been circulating around Washington for a number of weeks. These are the “memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative,” but it wasn’t an intelligence briefing. It was an opposition research report that collected a number of rumors about Trump and Russia — some potentially verifiable, others not. Here’s USA Today’s Marc Ambinder, explaining:
… the existence of the 35-page unverified dossier was mentioned in the synopsis; it wasn’t the entirety (or even the bulk) of their info.— Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder) January 11, 2017
Second, after CNN aired its report, Buzzfeed decided to publish a copy of the dossier — putting all the rumors into the public square, including unverified and almost certainly unverifiable rumors that are deeply personal and profoundly humiliating for Trump. I won’t dignify the report with a link, but some of the rumors detail alleged personal misconduct. Others detail disturbing claims of coordination between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials — claims that can be investigated rather easily. In fact, news organizations were investigating those claims even as Buzzfeed vomited out the entire report. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith explaining his reasoning:
This is ridiculous. How can “Americans make up their own minds” when they have no ability to fact-check the allegations? The public knows nothing about the sources, nothing about the underlying claims, and has no means of discovering the truth. Buzzfeed admits that “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations.” It’s been using its journalistic resources trying to verify the claims for “weeks” and hasn’t been able to. But “Americans” can somehow do what Buzzfeed can’t? This isn’t transparency; it’s malice.
Third, as debate raged across Twitter, the Guardian dropped its own bomb onto the debate:
The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.
It turns out, however, this information wasn’t exactly new. Heat Street reported on the warrant the night before the election:
Two separate sources with links to the counter-intelligence community have confirmed to Heat Street that the FBI sought, and was granted, a FISA court warrant in October, giving counter-intelligence permission to examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia.
Contrary to earlier reporting in the New York Times, which cited FBI sources as saying that the agency did not believe that the private server in Donald Trump’s Trump Tower which was connected to a Russian bank had any nefarious purpose, the FBI’s counter-intelligence arm, sources say, re-drew an earlier FISA court request around possible financial and banking offenses related to the server. The first request, which, sources say, named Trump, was denied back in June, but the second was drawn more narrowly and was granted in October after evidence was presented of a server, possibly related to the Trump campaign, and its alleged links to two banks; SVB Bank and Russia’s Alfa Bank. While the Times story speaks of metadata, sources suggest that a FISA warrant was granted to look at the full content of emails and other related documents that may concern US persons.
What to make of all of this? It’s hard to improve on Lawfare’s first take. We don’t know if any of the claims are true. The intelligence community is at least taking them seriously enough to brief Trump. Oh, and “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” are leaking like a sieve to CNN.
This is all disturbing. From the leaks, to the Buzzfeed document dump, to the substance of the allegations themselves. Are there “officials” who hate Trump so much that they’re willing to leak information that they know will lead to widespread public fear that the president-elect is compromised by a hostile foreign power? If so, that’s extraordinary. Or, just as extraordinary, are there officials who are so concerned by Trump’s potential ties to Russia that they’re willing to risk a public firestorm to jump-start an investigation? And yes, there are members of the media who hate Trump so much that they’re willing to print the wildest possible rumors, repeat them across the web, and then mock him relentlessly based on claims that can likely never be properly investigated, much less proven.
This takes place against the backdrop of conduct and rhetoric that was already deeply problematic. Russia’s disruption efforts were intolerable. Trump’s oddly consistent defenses of Putin and Russia were troubling. His remarks about NATO have been alarming. The list could go on. In other words, the situation was already volatile — because of Russia’s actions and Trump’s words. I have the same question as Jonah: “Why is admiration for Putin and his government the only issue Trump has never wavered, equivocated, or flip-flopped on?
The situation is crying out for an investigation — into the substance of the claims and the leaks to the press. The American people need to know what Russia is doing, what our president-elect or his team have done (if anything), and whether members of our own government are breaking the law to try to delegitimize Trump.