Top intelligence officials have briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on claims that Russian spies have “compromising personal and financial information about Trump,” CNN reported Tuesday evening.
The allegations were contained in memos written by a former British spy hired to conduct opposition research on Trump. The claims in the documents ― which BuzzFeed News published in full on Tuesday night ― came from Russian sources, the ex-spy told reporters for multiple outlets. But these claims have been reported before, they aren’t independently verified, and even the man who originally broke the story has warned readers to treat them cautiously.
Here’s what you may have missed: As CNN acknowledges, those same claims were first reported before the election. Now CNN is reporting that FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, have presented information summarizing the claims to Obama and Trump. That shows that the intelligence community takes the allegations seriously enough to investigate them, summarize them, and brief the president and his successor on them.
But there’s still no compelling public evidence that the claims are true. We haven’t seen how much of this information the intelligence community thought was worth mentioning or was able to find some verification for in the two-page document they presented to Obama and Trump. And the president-elect has, in his own way, already denied the claims:
This story starts back in October, when Mother Jones, where I used to work, reported that a former spy for a Western nation (thanks to CNN, we now know it was the U.K.) provided the FBI “with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump.” The FBI, Mother Jones added, “requested more information from” the ex-spy, who told the magazine that “there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.”
“There’s no way to tell whether the FBI has confirmed or debunked any of the allegations contained in the former spy’s memos,” Mother Jones noted in October. And the FBI has still “not confirmed many essential details in the memos,” CNN reported on Tuesday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also said Wednesday that he’d seen sensitive information last year and turned it over to the FBI to investigate.
As The Daily Beast’s Noah Shachtman noted, the memos had been circulating in newsrooms for months:
Multiple media outlets investigated. A Politico writer tweeted Tuesday night that his publication had probed some of the allegations but hadn’t been able to confirm them. Nor had anyone else.
Tuesday evening’s news tells us that the intelligence community was confident enough about the information in the memos to brief Obama and Trump on them. By publishing the story ― with no less than Watergate investigator Carl Bernstein’s byline on it ― CNN is sending a signal to other media outlets to take this subject seriously. And by dumping the documents on the internet without any ability to verify the claims, BuzzFeed has ensured that this story will continue to attract attention.
But the timing is especially interesting. Trump has been criticizing the intelligence community’s work on Russian interference in last year’s election. “My take is that this is the IC trolling Trump,” one former top intel official who works on Russia issues speculated. “Because Trump stupidly picked a fight with the IC, they’re just releasing stuff to generate bad headlines.”
On Tuesday night, Mother Jones updated its original story. “In Mother Jones’ original report,” the editors noted, “we did not publish the memos drafted by the intelligence official or cite specific details from the documents because the allegations could not be confirmed.”
“I didn’t publish all of the memos because the allegations in them couldn’t be confirmed, and I couldn’t confirm the FBI was mounting a thorough investigation of these allegations,” David Corn, my ex-boss and the author of the piece, told me Tuesday. “So I thought it was responsible to note the memos’ existence and characterize the information within them without providing all the details. Even Donald Trump deserves fairness.”
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, sent a note to his staff, which he tweeted Tuesday evening, explaining “how we made the decision to publish” the “secret dossier.”
And Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Obama requesting the administration provide “a description of the information Russia has obtained regarding the President-elect” in a classified briefing to Congress.
Obama responded to the report before delivering his farewell address Tuesday night, telling NBC he doesn’t comment on classified information “as a matter of principle and national security.”
“I ordered a report about Russia’s involvement in the hacking of the DNC, and passing on that information to WikiLeaks, because I felt it was important now that the election was over for everybody to understand exactly what happened in order to prevent it from happening again, in order to make sure that we’re working effectively with our allies so that misinformation and cyberattacks don’t end up undermining democratic structures around the world,” Obama said.
“My expectation and my hope is that this work will continue after I leave, 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.”
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with news that Sen. John McCain passed information to the FBI.