A classified report delivered to President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump last week included a section summarizing allegations that Russian intelligence services have compromising material and information on Trump’s personal life and finances, U.S. officials said.
The officials said that U.S. intelligence agencies have not corroborated those allegations, but believed that the sources involved in the reporting were credible enough to warrant inclusion of their claims in the highly classified report on Russian interference in the presidential campaign.
Trump, however, replied Tuesday night with a Tweet declaring: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
A senior U.S. official with access to the document said that the allegations were presented at least in part to underscore that Russia appeared to have collected embarrassing information on both major candidates, but only released material that might harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – a reflection of Russian motivation that bolstered U.S. spy agencies’ conclusion that Moscow sought to help Trump win.
The inclusion of such unsubstantiated allegations in the election report, a development first reported Tuesday by CNN, adds a disturbing new dimension to existing concerns about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy.
And it adds another bizarre twist to an already strange election year, injecting new controversy over the Trump team’s relations with Russia just when the president-elect is trying to consolidate and launch his new administration.
If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information – known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” – that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House. The claims were presented in a two-page summary attached to the full report, an addendum that also included allegations of ongoing contact between members of Trump’s inner circle and representatives of Moscow.
The Russian embassy did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night. Officials in Moscow earlier this week dismissed the intelligence report on Russian interference in the election and the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said its accusations have “no substance.”
U.S. officials said the claims about Russian possession of compromising material were based not on information obtained through traditional intelligence channels but research done by an outside entity engaged in political consulting work and led by a former high-ranking British intelligence official. The material was first mentioned in a Mother Jones report in October.
U.S. officials said that while the FBI had so far not confirmed the accuracy of the claims, U.S. officials had evaluated the sources relied upon by the private firm, considered them credible, and determined that it was plausible that they would have first-hand knowledge of Russia’s alleged dossier on Trump.
The CIA, the FBI and the White House declined to comment on the matter.
After CNN’s report Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s nominee to be the next attorney general, was asked at his confirmation hearing about the allegations in the intelligence report.
“If it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said after reading from the CNN report. “And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will do you?”
Sessions responded that he was “not aware of any of those activities.” While saying he had not spoken to Trump about the reports, he said “allegations get made about candidates all the time, and they’ve been made about President-elect Trump a lot.”
Dossiers compiled by the former British intelligence official have been circulating in Washington for months. Several news organizations, including the Washington Post, have been attempting to confirm many of the specific allegations without success.
One U.S. official said that Trump was briefed on the allegations because they were already circulating widely and it was “mostly a courtesy” to let him know they were out there.
Compiled initially in mid-2016 and supplemented during and after the campaign, the reports include detailed allegations that the Russians hold compromising material about Trump, some of it obtained while Trump visited Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant and on a previous visit to Russia.
Other reports compiled by the former intelligence official allege contacts between Trump personnel and business officials and Russian officials during the campaign. The former intelligence official was at one point paid to explore Trump’s ties to Russia by anti-Trump Republicans and later by supporters of the Democratic party.
“If I was the Clinton campaign, I would be reaching out to these people who put together the dossier, and I’d ask for my money back,” Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen told the Washington Post last week. “It’s wrong. There’s no accuracy. There’s not an ounce of validity to anything that exists in that file.”
Last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had been provided with the information, personally delivered it to FBI Director James Comey. A source familiar with the matter said the FBI had it well before then and had interviewed the former intelligence official.
Hillary Clinton’s former campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon, appealed for a congressional inquiry. “Mitch McConnell, you must let a Select Committee investigate these allegations, as @SenJohnMcCain has been urging for weeks,” Fallon wrote on Twitter.
K.T. McFarland, Trump’s designated national security adviser, declined to respond to a question about the report. “I don’t know about the story that you’re talking about that’s broken,” she said during participation in a panel Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace. “I know in Washington people prefer to talk about something about which they know nothing, but I’m going to refrain.”
“I’m not going to say what Donald Trump thinks about the election and what involvement the Russians had. I think I’d just say what [Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Jr.] said, which is that nothing the Russians did had any effect on the outcome.” Clapper, however, testified that the report never attempted to assess what effect the Russian intervention had on the election result.
The two-page summary was attached to the most highly classified of three separate versions of the report on Russian election interference that were circulated in Washington last week, including an abbreviated declassifed draft that was made public.
It was unclear whether the claims in the summary were even considered by FBI, CIA and DNI analysts who were responsible for the main body of the report, or whether the information from the outside group had any influence on those analysts’ conclusions.
Senior lawmakers who were briefed on the most classified version of the report on declined to comment.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Trump transition team, said that “we can’t comment on what goes on in” classified briefings, but added that the idea that Moscow would seek to gather incendiary material on U.S. leaders “should not be a surprise to anyone.”
“The Russians are always looking for dirt on any politician,” Nunes said. “That wouldn’t be news.” Asked whether he was aware of any contacts between the Trump team and Russia, Nunes said, “No. I found that hard to believe. I have not heard that. News to me.”
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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Karen DeYoung, Ellen Nakashima, Matt Zapotosky and Alice Crites contributed to this report.