Much of Donald Trump’s press conference and the attendant media commentary were taken up with the controversy over a dossier of memoranda that purported to detail Trump’s activities in Russia. Some of material, including a particularly unsavory episode in a Moscow hotel room, was said to be “compromising” and a basis for exerting pressure over Trump. Other material purported to describe extensive communication between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign.
The memoranda had been prepared by a British security firm hired by a Washington consulting firm on behalf of political opponents of Trump. In due course, however, the documents had been turned over to United States intelligence agencies. The intelligence agencies have thus far been unable to substantiate the allegations in the memoranda, but took them seriously enough to summarize them in a two page synopsis appended to the classified report of the intelligence community on Russian interference with the election that was provided to the President and to the President-elect.
The existence of the synopsis was reported by CNN without publishing the underlying memoranda. But disclosure of the synopsis was enough to give the latter documents some claim to legitimacy and, as a result, the website BuzzFeed was emboldened to publish the memoranda. (Neither CNN nor BuzzFeed published, or appeared to have a copy of, the synopsis.) At his press conference, Trump lashed out against both BuzzFeed and CNN, accusing them of purveying “Fake News” and loudly refused to take any question from a CNN reporter at the conference. The charge of fake news, however, appears misguided. When CNN reported the existence of the synopsis and its delivery to Trump, it was not fake news but real news. Even publication of the memoranda by BuzzFeed may have been poor editorial judgment, but the memoranda, factual or false, were documents that were being given serious attention by the intelligence agencies.
On Twitter and at his press conference, Trump has claimed that the memoranda had been leaked by the intelligence agencies and likened their conduct to “Nazi Germany.” There is, however, no evidence that intelligence officials leaked the dossier of memoranda. The dossier appears to have come from the Washington consulting firm that had commissioned them and it had been in the hands of the media for some time. On the other hand, Trump does have a legitimate complaint against the “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” whose leaks concerning the synopsis were the basis of the CNN story.
On Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an unusual statement:
This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
President-elect Trump again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people.
Clapper’s statement conspicuously made no mention of the leaked disclosure of the synopsis. While Trump’s comparison with Nazi Germany was irresponsible hyperbole (a genre to which he is no stranger), disclosure of the synopsis was clearly improper. It should be the subject of investigation and those responsible should be disciplined or possibly even prosecuted.
At the same time, the attempt to determine whether any of the major allegations in the memoranda have a basis in fact should not be abandoned. Apart from the element of supposedly compromising material, the alleged coordination between Russian officials and representatives of the Trump campaign would, if true, be a matter of grave concern. Although one particular claim in that vein, a meeting in Prague involving Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, appears to have been effectively refuted by Mr. Cohen, one or more errors do not necessarily discredit the entire document.
Toward the end of the press conference, a reporter asked:
REPORTER: Mr. President-elect, can you stand here today, once and for all and say that no one connected to you or your campaign had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the presidential campaign. And if you do indeed believe that Russia was behind the hacking, what is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?
Unfortunately, by asking two questions, the reporter gave Trump an opportunity to ignore the first and answer only the second:
TRUMP: He shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it. You will see that. Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it. I don’t believe that he will be doing it more now.…
Presumably the investigation of alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia will continue, but how robust or credible that investigation will be is open to serious question. In an op-ed column in the New York Times, Max Boot addressed the problem:
There is only one way to get to the bottom of this tawdry affair: Appoint a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate all of the allegations and issue a public report. The former C.I.A. directors Leon E. Panetta and Michael V. Hayden, among other possible choices, would provide instant credibility if they were appointed to lead such a panel.
If Mr. Trump is genuinely innocent of any untoward connections with the Kremlin, wouldn’t he want a full investigation to clear his name? That he so adamantly opposes any such inquiry speaks volumes.
As Boot surely knows, however, Trump has no interest in creating such a commission and, with both houses of Congress under Republican control, there would be no political will to do so. Perhaps that might change if there are stunning new revelations, but not otherwise.
Despite the controversy, Trump made it plain that his affection for Vladimir Putin is undiminished. While he expressed a pro forma disapproval of hacking, he did his best to downplay it and even suggested that it had the benefit of disclosing negative information about Hillary Clinton:
We talk about the hacking and hacking’s bad and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.
That Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing. That’s a horrible thing. [Note: “The debate” was during the Democratic primaries and there is no evidence that Clinton was personally aware the Donna Brazile had provided three or four questions in advance.]
Another reporter inquired:
On that intelligence report, the second part of their conclusion was that Vladimir Putin ordered it because he aspired to help you in the election. Do you accept that part of the finding? And will you undo what President Obama did to punish the Russians for this or will you keep it in place?
Trump declined to answer either question directly, but gave his answer by implication:
Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed.
If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.
It would be fair to interpret Trump as saying that that sanctions against Russia will not last long because if the Russians did interfere in the election, it was because Putin “likes Donald Trump”–and how can that be a bad thing?
Trump also attempted to minimize his own financial involvement with Russia. A reporter inquired whether Russia had any financial leverage over Trump and, if not, whether he would release his tax returns to prove it. Trump replied:
So I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.
As to his tax returns, Trump repeated his familiar mantra that he could not release them because they are being audited.
On the whole, I sympathize with members of the media who attempt to question Trump, an exercise that must feel something like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Nevertheless, there are two points on which I admit to impatience and frustration with them:
- Why did no one among the gaggle of reporters present ask Trump to explain the statement by his son Donald Jr. at a real estate conference in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
- There is clearly no legal impediment to disclosing tax returns that are under audit, but no one, so far as I know, has ever asked Trump to explain just why he believes the existence of an on-going audit is a reason for not disclosing them. If the returns were disclosed, it is possible that ensuing comments and questions, might raise issues that the auditors hadn’t thought of, but isn’t that a risk he should be prepared to accept?
On a positive note, Trump’s nominees for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA each appear to have confidence in the assessment of the Intelligence Community with respect to Russian interference in the election. More broadly, they each appear to have a far more realistic picture of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and the threat they pose to the United States, than does their boss. Whether they will be able to educate Trump sufficiently, remains to be seen.