HAIR ON FIRE
U.S. Spies Warn Trump and GOP: Russia Could Get You Next
Unconfirmed allegations of blackmail and bribes, as well as intelligence-community testimony, warn the new administration could be compromised by the Kremlin.
A salacious 35-page document, a summary of which was presented to President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump last week, included allegations that Russian operatives claim to possess “compromising personal and financial information” on Trump, CNN first reported, citing multiple U.S. officials.
The full document, which has been circulating in media and government circles for months, was published by BuzzFeed on Tuesday night without verification. The report claims that Russian authorities sought to “exploit Trump’s personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gain compromising material on him.
On Twitter, Trump reacted by denouncing the report as a “political witch hunt,” calling it “fake news.”
The most explosive allegation from a source was that Trump employed a “number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ [sic] (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB [Russian intelligence] control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.”
In addition, Russian operatives also allegedly fed “valuable intelligence” on Hillary Clinton for “several years.” The Daily Beast has been unable to verify those claims.
In July 2016, the report asserts, former Trump adviser Carter Page met a person only referred to as “Divyken,” an official from Kremlin Internal Affairs. During the meeting, according to sources, Divyken discussed the release of compromising material on Clinton, but “also hints at Kremlin possession of such material on Trump.” The Clinton dossier was not provided to Trump’s team, the report added.
FBI Director James Comey told the Senate earlier on Tuesday he would not comment on a potential investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
“I would never comment on investigations—whether we have one or not—in an open forum like this, so I really can’t answer one way or another,” Comey said. (The director was accused by Democrats of sinking Clinton’s chances when he commented on the investigation into her private email server in October.)
“For the moment, the most significant story is not the allegations themselves, but the fact they were briefed to the president and president-elect," Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency official, told The Daily Beast. "The intelligence community does not take mere innuendo to the president, so it means that intelligence professionals and law enforcement are at least taking the claims seriously. But that is absolutely not the same as these allegations being verified. There are very specific facts in the document which law enforcement should be able to prove or disprove. So the smart course is not to dismiss this as fake news or assume it is not credible, but to wait for more information to emerge.”
The document is mostly composed of memos prepared by a former British intelligence operative who was hired to do research on Trump, first by his Republican opponents and then by Democrats. USA Today reports that his work on Trump had traveled so widely in Washington that America’s top spies felt a summary of the information needed to be presented to Obama, Trump, and to the eight senators and congressmen who oversee the intelligence community.
“I can picture how difficult a decision this must have been,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden told The Wall Street Journal of the decision to inform Trump. “But if we had this data, others may have had this data too. And regardless of truth or falsity, I can see why they thought the president-elect should know.”
The Trump presidential transition team did not respond to a request for comment on these allegations, but this latest report further fuels concerns that Russian intelligence or state actors could one day use potentially embarrassing or damaging information to blackmail a Trump White House or Republican officials.
During an interview with Seth Meyers that was taped Tuesday afternoon, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said of the report, “We should be concerned that intelligence officials leak to the press and won’t go and tell the president-elect or the president of the United States himself now, Mr. Obama, what the information is.” Meyers cut her off at that point, saying, “But the report was about them going to the president” and “I believe it said they did brief him on it,” to which Conway replied, “He has said he’s not aware of that.”
Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen maintained a “secret liaison” with the Russian leadership, the report alleges, especially related to trying to “cover up” the scandal of U.S. press disclosures about the closeness of Page and former campaign manager Paul Manafort to the Kremlin. On Tuesday night, Cohen called those allegations “so ridiculous” and “silly.”
The Guardian reported Tuesday night that the FBI applied for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court last year to monitor four individuals on Trump’s team who were suspected of irregular contacts with officials in Russia. The court initially turned down the request as overly broad, and it’s unclear if the FBI was granted the warrant.
Even before Tuesday night’s bombshell allegations, elected Republicans were reluctantly coming to grips with Russian involvement in the election, while Trump, at least in public, continued to be unmoved by the matter.
And despite Trump’s recurring praise for Putin and the president-elect’s repeated refusal to blame Russian government-affiliated forces for the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta email hacks, those Republican lawmakers are rallying around the idea that Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections is a problem that should frighten both parties.
“Last time I checked, Vladimir Putin was neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican,” Sen. Marco Rubio said before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, hours before the CNN story broke. “Neither political party should take this lightly. This should not be a partisan issue. This involves whether or not we’re going to allow someone to actively interfere in our political discourse and divide us as a nation against each other.”
The Russian government has information from the Republican Party that it could publicize in the future, if it were interested in doing so, FBI Director James Comey said.
“Information was harvested,” Comey testified Tuesday. “None of that was released.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said over the weekend he believed it was “naive” for Putin to presume Trump would be good for Russian interests. But if Trump truly challenges Russia, the Republicans could be the targets of embarrassing leaks in the next election cycle.
Comey testified that the Russians successfully hacked state-level Republican organizations and campaigns, and were also able to penetrate old email systems used by the Republican National Committee. Neither current RNC servers nor the Trump campaign was successfully hacked, Comey said.
“Russia didn’t do this to help the Republican candidate,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said, echoing Rubio. “Russia did this to help Russia and to weaken America. And therein lies the heart of why this is so important. Because in the next election that shoe could easily be on the other foot, and a foreign power could decide it wants the Democrat to win this time.”
The Russians covertly collected information from Democratic and Republican sources, but only chose to release the damaging information from Democratic sources, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said. They also collected more information from Democrats than Republicans.
“They got far deeper and wider with the DNC than the RNC,” Comey added. “[They used] similar techniques, spearfishing techniques. There was no doubt they were more successful with the DNC… they did hit some Republican affiliated organizations, but not the current [information in the] RNC.”
The intelligence community representatives confirmed that the Russians could just as easily release information damaging to Republicans in the future.
“I’m flabbergasted that somehow this is viewed by some as in the rearview mirror,” said Democratic co-chair Mark Warner. “Don’t the Russians have the capability of taking… old information… and selectively leak[ing] that prospectively?”
“Sure,” the FBI director replied.
Trump has cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the American election, and obfuscated with vague statements about foreign hacking that don’t directly point the blame at Putin. But other Republicans, and even Trump’s own Cabinet nominees, are breaking with him on the issue.
Asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill if he agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment, Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, said he did with “high confidence.”
The confidence that Republicans have in the intelligence community’s assessment will now be tested as the question turns to how the United States should respond to Russia’s interference.
Not far from the intelligence hearing, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a new set of anti-Russian sanctions known as the Countering Russian Hostilities Act.
“I would like to thank President Putin for bringing us all together,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham joked at the press conference introducing the measure on early Tuesday afternoon.
Graham and fellow Republican John McCain, along with Democrats Ben Cardin, Bob Menendez, and Jeanne Shaheen, touted proposed legislation including new mandatory sanctions related to Russian activity in Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, and Syria, and addressing the Russian weaponization of “fake news.”
“We have been attacked,” Cardin said. “It cannot be business as usual.” The senator emphasized that this was not about “going back and looking at the previous election,” but about “protecting the Trump administration” and future one against Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process.
“Russia is attacking the United States,” Menendez stated, insisting that Putin and elements in the Russian government are in a “Cold War, 2.0” mindset and that we “must not have ourselves recruited by” them.
McCain, who is diametrically opposed to Trump on almost all matters Russia—and who rescinded his endorsement of Trump following the release of the “grab them by the pussy” tape in October—seemed to be the lone voice plainly acknowledging that Trump’s sympathies may not lie with their cause.
“We don’t know what the incoming administration is going to do,” McCain said, with regard to sanctions.
But as the Republican Party slowly comes around to the realization that a foreign power tried to interfere in an American presidential election, Trump may be the odd man out if he attempts to block a retaliatory response.