Officials tell Donald Trump about unverified Russian intelligence
Washington — US intelligence officials have informed president-elect Donald Trump about unsubstantiated reports they have received that the Russian government had compiled potentially damaging personal and financial information on him, a person familiar with the situation said.
CNN reported earlier on Tuesday that as part of a briefing on Russian attempts to meddle in the presidential election, US spy chiefs included a two-page summary of memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative about alleged Kremlin operations to gather prejudicial information on Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had not been able to verify the information in the documents, CNN said.
BuzzFeed later published the entire 35-page compilation of memos, which contain potentially damaging but uncorroborated information about Trump and his associates. The person confirmed that the document was the same as the material in the government’s possession.
The aim of the alleged Russian government intelligence-gathering was to leverage the information to shift US policy towards Russia, including by potentially blackmailing Trump, according to the memos. President Barack Obama also was briefed on the documents.
Trump denounced "Fake news — a total political witch hunt!" on Twitter at about 8:20pm in New York, without mentioning or linking to any of the reports.
He retweeted a Trump Organisation official, executive vice-president Michael Cohen, who tweeted that "I have never been to Prague in my life" with a picture of the front of his passport. One of the memos alleged that Cohen had met "Kremlin officials" in Prague in August 2016.
Trump then tweeted an article by Lifezette, a website run by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, that was critical of the BuzzFeed report.
Representatives of Trump’s transition did not respond to requests for comment. FBI spokesman Andrew Ames declined to comment.
CNN reported that senior intelligence officials gave Trump a summary of the allegations to make him aware that the information had been circulating among some legislators, government officials and journalists.
In excerpts of an interview with Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News scheduled to air on Friday, Obama said he would not comment on classified information. The president said he ordered a report by US intelligence agencies on Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign to help prevent it from happening again.
"My expectation and my hope is that this work will continue after I leave," Obama said in the interview. "That Congress in possession of both the classified and unclassified reports, that the president-elect and his administration — in possession of both the classified and unclassified reports — will take it seriously and now get to work reinforcing those mechanisms that we can use to protect our democracy."
The reports emerged the night before Trump was scheduled to hold his first news conference since winning the election. The Senate is also scheduled to begin a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for Trump’s nominee as secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Democrats have criticised for having close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shortly before the election, FBI director James Comey had announced that his agency was re-opening an investigation of e-mails sent by Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state — a disclosure she and her aides blame for contributing to her loss. Then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid wrote to Comey and demanded that he disclose information in the FBI’s possession about Trump’s connections to Russia.
A former aide to Reid confirmed that the senator knew about the memos published on Tuesday before sending his letter to Comey. The issue arose again during a hearing on Tuesday on the Russian hacking and extending sanctions. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon asked Comey whether the FBI had investigated reported relationships between individuals in Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. Comey said he could not comment "in an open forum like this".
Democrats began seizing on the memos late on Tuesday.
"The intelligence dossier presents profoundly disturbing allegations; ones that should shake every American to the core," Neera Tanden, a Clinton ally who is the president of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned research group, said in a statement. "They must be fully investigated. The charges levied in this dossier of, among other things, conspiring with a foreign power are extremely serious and call into question whether Trump can be trusted to defend America."
Before last week’s briefing by intelligence officials, Trump had expressed scepticism that Russia was responsible for hacks of Democratic Party officials’ e-mail accounts during the campaign. The US intelligence community has concluded that Putin ordered the hacking as part of a scheme to tilt the election towards Trump.
Republican and Democratic senators joined to offer legislation on Tuesday that would impose mandatory visa bans and freeze US assets of individuals who carry out cyberattacks on significant public or private infrastructure or on democratic institutions. Top intelligence officials also reaffirmed their finding that they had "high confidence" of Putin’s involvement in the hacking at the hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. The hacking was aimed at undermining Clinton and then helping Trump, they said.
They did not assess the "impact on the electorate," they said.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and suggested he wants better relations with the government in Moscow. He has indicated he would review continuing sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support of antigovernment factions in Ukraine.
As recently as Monday, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said in an interview with USA Today that the president-elect may consider rolling back some of the penalties President Barack Obama imposed on Russia for interfering in the US election.
One of the memos published by BuzzFeed asserts that Russian intelligence agencies had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for at least five years, and that Russian operatives believed they had enough compromising information to blackmail him "if they so chose".