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About That Explosive Trump Story: Take a Deep Breath

Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, January 10, 2017, 7:43 PM

Several points on the recently released cache of memos alleging communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and the possession by the Russian government of highly compromising material against Trump. 

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This afternoon, CNN reported that President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump had been briefed by the intelligence community on the existence of a cache of memos alleging communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and the possession by the Russian government of highly compromising material against Trump. The memos were compiled by a former British intelligence officer on behalf of anti-Trump Republicans and, later, Democrats working against Trump in the general election. According to CNN, the intelligence officer’s previous work is credible, but the veracity of the specific allegations set forth in the document have not yet been confirmed. Notably, Mother Jones journalist David Corn reported the week before the election on similar allegations that Trump had been “cultivated” by Russian intelligence, on the basis of memos produced by “a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country.” A similar report also appeared in Newsweek.

This cache of memos has been kicking around official Washington for several weeks now. A great many journalists have been feverishly working to document the allegations within it, which are both explosive and quite various: Some of them relate to alleged collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence, while others relate to personal sexual conduct by Trump himself that supposedly constitutes a rip-roaring KOMPROMAT file.

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We have had the document for a couple of weeks and have chosen, as have lots of other publications, not to publish it while the allegations within it remain unproven. In response to CNN’s report, however, Buzzfeed has now released the underlying document itself, which is available here.

Whether or not its release is defensible in light of the CNN story, it is now important to emphasize several points.

First, we have no idea if any of these allegations are true. Yes, they are explosive; they are also entirely unsubstantiated, at least to our knowledge, at this stage. For this reason, even now, we are not going to discuss the specific allegations within the document.

Second, while unproven, the allegations are being taken quite seriously. The president and president-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility. The individual who generated them is apparently a person whose work intelligence professionals take seriously. And at a personal level, we can attest that we have had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people about the material in this document. While nobody has confirmed any of the allegations, both inside government and in the press, it is clear to us that they are the subject of serious attention.

Third, precisely because it is being taken seriously, it is—despite being unproven and, in public anyway, undiscussed—pervasively affecting the broader discussion of Russian hacking of the election. CNN reported that Sen. John McCain personally delivered a copy of the document to FBI Director James Comey on Dec. 9. Consider McCain’s comments about the gravity of the Russian hacking episode at last week’s Armed Services Committee hearing in light of that fact. Likewise, consider Sen. Ron Wyden’s questioning of Comey at today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, in which Wyden pushed the FBI director to release a declassified assessment before Jan. 20 regarding contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. (Comey refused to comment on an ongoing investigation.)

So while people are being delicate about discussing wholly unproven allegations, the document is at the front of everyone’s minds as they ponder the question: Why is Trump so insistent about vindicating Russia from the hacking charges that everyone else seems to accept?

Fourth, it is significant that the document contains highly specific allegations, many of which are the kind of facts it should be possible to prove or disprove. This is a document about meetings that either took place or did not take place, stays in hotels that either happened or didn’t, travel that either happened or did not happen. It should be possible to know whether at least some of these allegations are true or false.

Finally, fifth, it is important to emphasize that this is not a case of the intelligence community leaking sensitive information about an investigative subject out of revenge or any other improper motive. This type of information, referencing sensitive sources and methods and the identities of U.S. persons, is typically treated by the intelligence community with the utmost care. And this material, in fact, does not come from the intelligence community; it comes, rather, from private intelligence documents put together by a company. It is actually not even classified.

All of which is to say to everyone: Slow down, and take a deep breath. We shouldn’t assume either that this is simply a “fake news” episode directed at discrediting Trump or that the dam has now broken and the truth is coming out at last. We don’t know what the reality is here, and the better part of valor is not to get ahead of the facts—a matter on which, incidentally, the press deserves a lot of credit.

UPDATE: The Guardian reports:

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.

UPDATE II: Trump just tweeted this:

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.
Susan Hennessey was the Executive Editor of Lawfare and General Counsel of the Lawfare Institute. She was a Brookings Fellow in National Security Law. Prior to joining Brookings, Ms. Hennessey was an attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the National Security Agency. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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