President-elect Donald Trump appears to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a document published by BuzzFeed Tuesday night that purported to reveal that Russia is maintaining a cache of damaging information about him. That misimpression led him, on Wednesday, to suggest that U.S. intelligence agencies had leaked the document in order to hurt him and to compare those agencies to the government of Nazi Germany.
But there is overwhelming public evidence that the document in question was not under the control of the intelligence agencies at all, raising some serious questions about where of the president-elect is getting his information, and how that will affect his relationship with a key element of the nation’s security services.
The dossier published by BuzzFeed is 35-pages of completely unverified material that suggests Trump has had a long relationship with Russian officials, has received regular intelligence reports from them, has engaged in bribery and favor-swapping, and claims that on more than one occasion Trump engaged in potentially embarrassing sexual activity while in Russia and was caught on film by the Kremlin.
The information appears to have been compiled by a private security firm in the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal identified the author as Christopher Steele, a former agent with the British intelligence service. Steele is a cofounder of the London-based Orbis Intelligence.
It has also been making the rounds among reporters and politicians in Washington for several months.
On Wednesday, Arizona Sen. John McCain confirmed that he had received a copy late last year. “Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the director of the FBI,” he said.
At least one journalist, Mother Jones magazine’s Washington bureau chief David Corn, had a copy of some of the dossier’s contents as long ago as October. Corn, in an article for the magazine, quoted verbatim parts of the report that appeared in the document BuzzFeed released Tuesday night.
All of this strongly suggests that the report has been circulating in the wild for quite some time, well beyond the control of U.S. intelligence services. Trump, however, seems convinced that it was leaked by those agencies as a final attack on him before he takes office. On Twitter Wednesday morning, he raged, “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?”
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?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
He reiterated his attack on the U.S. intelligence services during a press conference Wednesday morning.
In opening remarks, he again suggested that the dossier had been released by U.S. intelligence officials, which he said would be a “tremendous blot on their record ... because a thing like that should never have been written, it should never have been had, and it should certainly have never been released.”
When a reporter asked him to clarify his Nazi comparison from earlier in the day, he responded, “I think it was disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information out that turned out to be so false and fake,” he said.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” he repeated. “That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public.”
It is notable that several hours had passed between Trump’s angry 7:48 a.m. tweet and his press conference, which started shortly after 11 a.m. -- more than enough time for people on Trump’s team to correct whatever misimpression the president-elect had about the provenance of the document BuzzFeed published.
Apparently, though, nobody did. Or, if they did, their boss ignored them. In either case, he went before the news cameras and doubled down on his claim that the U.S. intelligence officers are similar to the Nazis.
Trump did this at a time when his relationship with the Intelligence Community is already under considerable strain, something that top officials alluded to in Capitol Hill testimony last week. Further exacerbating it could have negative effects on national security.
Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command, last week told members of Congress that he was concerned about being able to attract and keep talented personnel if they feel their work is not respected or taken seriously by the president.