Some Facts and Questions Raised By New Revelations on Trump/Putin Ties

If you are reading the news this morning, then you’re probably hearing about the release of documents purporting to show deep ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. CNN started the avalanche with this article – which was followed by the publication of documents by Buzzfeed. Here is Jake Tapper’s report from CNN last night:

It might also be helpful to read what David Corn wrote about all this at Mother Jones back in October.

Based on this and other reporting, here is a timeline of how this story unfolded:

June

In June, the former Western intelligence officer—who spent almost two decades on Russian intelligence matters and who now works with a US firm that gathers information on Russia for corporate clients—was assigned the task of researching Trump’s dealings in Russia and elsewhere, according to the former spy and his associates in this American firm. This was for an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client critical of the celebrity mogul. (Before the former spy was retained, the project’s financing switched to a client allied with Democrats.) “It started off as a fairly general inquiry,” says the former spook, who asks not to be identified. But when he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, “there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.” (Corn)

We now know that the “former Western intelligence officer” previously worked for the British MI6 and has been described by U.S. intelligence as a credible source.

An official in the US administration who spoke to the Guardian described the source who wrote the intelligence report as consistently reliable, meticulous and well-informed, with a reputation for having extensive Russian contacts. (Julian Borger, Guardian)

July

…near the start of July on his own initiative—without the permission of the US company that hired him—he (former intelligence officer) sent a report he had written for that firm to a contact at the FBI… (Corn)

August

The FBI, after receiving the first memo, did not immediately request additional material, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates. Yet in August, they say, the FBI asked him for all information in his possession and for him to explain how the material had been gathered and to identify his sources. The former spy forwarded to the bureau several memos—some of which referred to members of Trump’s inner circle. After that point, he continued to share information with the FBI. (Corn)

Summer

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. (Borger)

October

Sources tell CNN that these same allegations about communications between the Trump campaign and the Russians, mentioned in classified briefings for congressional leaders last year, prompted then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to send a letter to FBI Director Comey in October, in which he wrote, “It has become clear that you possess 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.” (CNN)

December

The Guardian can confirm that the documents reached the top of the FBI by December. Senator John McCain, who was informed about the existence of the documents separately by an intermediary from a western allied state, dispatched an emissary overseas to meet the source and then decided to present the material to Comey in a one-on-one meeting on 9 December, according to a source aware of the meeting. (Borger)

January

Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN…

On the same day that the President-elect was briefed by the intelligence community, the top four Congressional leaders, and chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — the so-called “Gang of Eight” — were also provided a summary of the memos regarding Mr. Trump, according to law enforcement, intelligence and administration sources. (CNN)

That brings us up to date. Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessy and Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare offer a word of caution about the details that are contained in these documents.

…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…

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.

Having read all the documents myself, it seems to me that they raise three important questions:

  1. Does Russia have facts about Donald Trump that they could use to compromise him?
  2. Is there proof of the direct ties and coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia?
  3. Is there evidence for this allegation contained in the documents?

Commenting on the negative media publicity surrounding alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign in support of Trump, Source E said he understood that the Republican candidate and his team were relatively relaxed about this because it deflected media and the Democrats’ attention away from Trump’s business dealings in China and other emerging markets. Unlike in Russia, these were substantial and involved the payment of large bribes and kickbacks which, were they to become public, would be potentially very damaging to their campaign.

It is possible that we will never know the answer to #1 because it is difficult to imagine how anyone would access that information. The direct ties in #2 involve travel and meetings between Russian officials and Trump advisors, including Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. It is more likely that these can be documented.

The third question is not receiving much attention at this point – but strikes me as equally explosive. It is also something that either U.S. intelligence services or determined journalists should be able to track down.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly and frequently blogs at Political Animal.