In his first post-election press conference today, President-elect Donald Trump vehemently denied allegations contained in a bombshell dossier that claims Russia amassed damaging information on the business magnate that could be used to compromise or blackmail him.
The dossier, which was leaked to the media on Tuesday and published in its entirety by BuzzFeed, is composed of a series of memos that, according to CNN, was compiled by a retired British intelligence agent who runs a private intelligence gathering firm. The memos, which are unverified, purport that surrogates working for Trump repeatedly exchanged information and conspired with Russian government intermediaries during the 2016 presidential campaign in a coordinated attempt to defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The memos also contain highly salacious content, including accusations that Trump, during a 2013 trip to Moscow, hired prostitutes to perform an unconventional sex act in the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton hotel, where secretly placed cameras may have recorded the action.
In his press conference, Trump dismissed the leaked memos as “fake news,” and openly suggested that the U.S. intelligence agencies he's been clashing with both during and after the election may have been the source of the leak.
“It's all fake news. It's phony stuff. It didn't happen,” said Trump to a gathering of reporters. “It was a group of opponents that got together — sick people — and they put that crap together.”
Trump expressed similar sentiments on Twitter as well: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak' into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” the future commander-in-chief wrote.
CNN reported that the MI6 agent who compiled the memos was hired by rival Republican groups and donors, and later by Hillary Clinton supporters, to conduct opposition research on Trump. The agent's past work is reputed to be credible, CNN noted, although BuzzFeed has acknowledged that the dossier does contain errors. Citing people familiar with the matter, the Wall Street Journal has identified the individual as Christopher Steele, a director of London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd.
Furthermore, BBC correspondent Paul Wood told BBC Radio 4 that there are actually multiple intelligence sources who allege that Russia possesses compromising personal or financial material on Trump.
Trump rejected such claims, however, including the notion that Russia has financial leverage over him. “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia,” said Trump. Nevertheless, Trump said he does not plan to release his tax returns to back up his claims, claiming that he is still being audited and insisting that only reporters, and not the American public, care about his tax returns.
The incoming administration also sought to discredit the accusations of secret meetings between Russian government intermediaries and Trump surrogates – specifically, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and an individual who appears to have been incorrectly identified as prominent Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.
The Trump team seized on this alleged inaccuracy, claiming that Cohen's passport records prove he was not in Prague in August 2016, as the dossier alleges. Moreover, CNN's Jake Tapper reported via Twitter that a government source confirmed it was actually a different Michael Cohen in Prague. BuzzFeed acknowledged that the memos contained errors when it published the dossier.
Spicer also said that Manafort has “adamantly denied” any involvement with the Russians, and claimed that Trump doesn't even know Page.
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who notably withdrew his support for Trump in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign, acknowledged in a statement on his website that he supplied the FBI with the dossier in August 2016. (However, CNN reported that the aforementioned MI6 agent had already provided the same intelligence to the agency.)
“Late last year, I received sensitive information that has since been made public. Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the director of the FBI. That has been the extent of my contact with the FBI or any other government agency regarding this issue,” McCain's statement reads.
The FBI did not come forward publicly with this information – a move that starkly contrasts with FBI Director James Comey's public announcement in late October that his agency had reopened its investigation into Clinton's private email server. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) responded with a letter to the FBI, accusing Comey of sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”
A Wired report published on Wednesday suggests that veterans of the intelligence community are approaching the report with caution, viewing it as interesting raw intelligence that needs further investigation before experts can determine its veracity.
In an interview with SC Media, Eric O'Neill, national security strategist at Carbon Black and a former FBI counterterrorism operative, indicated a lack of refinement in the intelligence. “No more than a few pages in, it became quite clear to me that no one associated with an intelligence agency or with any intelligence training drafted this report,” said O'Neill. “Beyond the language issues, it has a large number of holes and information that lacks verification.”
Despite his latest diatribe against the intelligence community, Trump did, in his strongest language to date, admit that Russia appears to have meddled in the 2016 presidential elections by hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairperson John Podesta – a claim, supported by 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, that Trump had ridiculed for months.
“I believe Russia did it,” said Trump, who appeared to downplay the extraordinary nature of the campaign by comparing it with other recent cyber intrusions. “When we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn't make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China,” said Trump, apparently referring to the 2014 hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Trump also attempted to reason that some good came from the hacks, which intelligence sources agree were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
“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,” said Trump, referring to emails published by WikiLeaks indicating that Clinton received a sneak preview of certain presidential debate questions from DNC chair Donna Brazile.
Trump also asserted that if Putin had anything damaging on him, Russia would have taken advantage of the opportunity to besmirch him. “I think if he did have something, they would've released it; they would've been glad to release it,” he said.
The president-elect said that within 90 days of taking office on Jan. 20, his incoming Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and incoming CIA Director Mike Pompeo, would create a new major report on hacking defense. He also said his administration would unite the “greatest computer minds” in the U.S. to create new solutions to stop the rampant hacking of American interests.
Perhaps Trump will be less likely to butt heads with intel leaders of his own choosing, but in the meantime experts continue to express concern over his disparagement of the intelligence community.
“In the short term, Trump's comments won't affect morale or recruiting…. In the long term, however, continued criticism may translate into distrust on both sides,” said Leo Taddeo, Chief Security Officer at Cryptzone, and a former special agent in charge of the Special Operations/Cyber Division of the FBI's New York Office. “In the cyber domain, this would likely result in lower risk tolerance and reduced operational activity. If operators don't feel the president has their backs, they won't be taking many chances,” he added, in an interview with SC Media.
“Having the soon-to-be commander-in-chief come down so hard on the intelligence community absolutely stands to affect morale,” said O'Neill, adding that it's at least plausible that an intelligence agency purposefully leaked the dossier.
“The FBI, CIA and NSA should steer clear of politics, but these agencies sometimes fail to do that because they are filled with people who have very strong feelings,” said O'Neill. “Personally, I have always felt very strongly about the need for absolute secrecy when it comes to classified information but given what we've seen with leaks in recent months, it stands to reason that it is certainly possible for this information to be leaked in order to damage Trump, if it exists.”
UPDATE 1/12: On the evening of Jan. 11, James Clapper released the following statement, which appears to lend further credence to reports that the intelligence community briefed Trump on the memos written about him.
"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."
The man identified as the author of the memos, Christopher Steele, is now in hiding, according to multiple reports, including one from The Telegraph.