The Trump dossier


What we know, what we don’t

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, Jan. 12:

Every so often a foreign word seeps into our lexicon with the promise of staying power. Kompromat: A Russian word meaning compromising material, often about public figures or politicians. And, of course, a favorite monkey wrench in the Kremlin’s toolbox.

Americans are buzzing about 35 pages of unsubstantiated kompromat — much of it political, some of it financial, some of it salacious — about President-elect Donald Trump, his campaign, and their relationship with the Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s a cauldron of characters, places and events that reads like a twisted amalgam of LeCarre and Dostoyevsky — with a bit of “Wolf of Wall Street” thrown in. There are reports of meetings between Russian operatives and Trump campaign figures during the campaign, and references to videos of Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013.

The dossier hasn’t been authenticated. Its claims are based on anonymous sources, making it difficult to assess their credibility. Its author, identified Wednesday as a former Western spy, was hired by Trump’s Republican rivals, and later by Democrats, to research Trump’s possible ties to Russia. It became public late Tuesday, after BuzzFeed posted all 35 pages online and CNN reported on it.

Still, the FBI found the allegations credible enough to investigate. A two-page summary of the information was tacked on to the U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the presidential election that was given to President Barack Obama and Trump in briefings last week.

At a news conference Wednesday, Trump dismissed the contents of the dossier: “It’s all fake news, it’s phony stuff, it didn’t happen.” He lashed out at U.S. intelligence agencies, saying it is “a disgrace that information would be let out” and “a tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that.” In a tweet earlier in the day, he accused U.S. intelligence agencies of leaking the allegations to take “one last shot at me.”

Trump also thanked news organizations that had “looked at that nonsense” and opted not to publish it. The dossier had been circulating in Washington for months, uncorroborated. GOP Sen. John McCain gave FBI Director James Comey a copy more than a month ago. Journalists in Washington also had copies, but responsibly held back on releasing the dossier because they had yet to confirm its claims. That doesn’t mean they’ll drop the subject. Late Wednesday, several outlets identified the author of the dossier as former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who now runs a private security firm.

How much, if any of it, is true remains to be seen. But two undeniably troubling plotlines have emerged. Did the president-elect engage in behavior that has compromised his presidency before it starts? Or has someone launched a campaign of lies to undermine him? None of us knows where the narrative will lead. It’s important to find out.

The onus is on the intelligence agencies — the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency — to get to the bottom of this. It’s their job. It’s also almost certainly their fault that the information leaked out before it was fully vetted. Americans need answers and context.

Some of what’s in the dossier is easy to check out. A Trump lawyer that the dossier claimed had once met a Russian operative in Prague during the campaign has said he has never been to Prague. Some of it — references to Putin’s cyber-campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign — has been confirmed previously. Trump said as much during his news conference, acknowledging for the first time that he believes Russia was behind the cyber-campaign. “Hacking? I think it was Russia.”

The worst thing Trump could do at this point would be to interfere with the investigation. It’s already been established that Russia interfered in the presidential election, to Trump’s benefit. Then there’s Trump’s puzzling affinity for Putin, the former KGB agent at the helm of America’s greatest adversary. If the soon-to-be president appears to influence or discredit the investigation, his actions will hang over every move he makes on the world stage — particularly in Mother Russia.

What we know, what we don’t