On Tuesday, CNN published a story about a document it said had been prepared by U.S. officials and presented to Donald Trump. That document, which CNN did not publish but BuzzFeed later did, describes allegations that Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russian intelligence figures who are in possession of “compromising personal and financial information” about the president-elect. Trump responded by denouncing the report as “fake news” at a Wednesday press conference. Then, on Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement about the matter—a statement that CNN staffers and many others are describing as having “confirmed” CNN’s Tuesday reporting.
That’s not really true. Let’s first look at what CNN reported. CNN wrote:
- that Trump had been “presented” at a briefing Friday with a two-page synopsis of a 35-page dossier about Trump-related Russian intelligence operations during the 2016 campaign
- that the dossier was originally prepared by “a former British intelligence operative” whose “past work US intelligence officials consider credible”
- that U.S. intelligence officials presented Trump with the synopsis in order to “demonstrate that Russia had compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties”
- that the synopsis and the dossier it was based on “augmented the evidence that Moscow intended to harm Clinton’s candidacy and help Trump’s”
- that the dossier was “circulating” in Washington, D.C., last summer but that “what has changed since then is that US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of [the dossier’s] information” in the presentation to Trump
- that the FBI is investigating the allegations in the dossier though it has not confirmed “many essential details” included therein
This all paints a pretty clear picture of U.S. intelligence officials making Donald Trump aware of allegations compiled by a “credible” investigator who has a “vast” and “credible” network of sources—allegations that intelligence officials consider to be “evidence” that Russia intentionally boosted Trump’s candidacy. CNN states as a fact that U.S. officials believe the dossier “demonstrate[s] that Russia … compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties.” And it says that the FBI hasn’t confirmed “many” details in the dossier, which seems to imply that some of the details in it have been confirmed.
Here’s what James Clapper wrote about the synopsis/dossier in his statement about a conversation that he and Trump had on Wednesday:
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.
Note that Clapper does not say that he discussed the dossier with Trump on Friday or that Trump was physically given the synopsis at that time to read later. On that note, here’s what NBC reported about the matter earlier Wednesday:
President-elect Donald Trump was not told about unverified reports that Russia has compromising information on him during last week’s intelligence briefing, according to a senior intelligence official with knowledge of preparations for the briefing.
A summary of the unverified reports was prepared as background material for the briefing, but not discussed during the meeting, the official said … While multiple officials say the [synopsis] was included in the material prepared for the briefers, the senior official told NBC News that the briefing was oral and no actual documents were left with the Trump team in New York.
In light of this, here’s a line in CNN’s original report that’s worth highlighting:
CNN has confirmed that the synopsis was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump but cannot confirm if it was discussed in his meeting with the intelligence chiefs.
So CNN can’t confirm that the synopsis was actually discussed on Friday … and Clapper didn’t say it was discussed on Friday … and NBC reports that it definitely wasn’t discussed on Friday and that Trump didn’t take any documents with him after the meeting.
In other words, we have no evidence—from CNN or anyone else—that Trump was actually made aware of the synopsis/dossier during the Friday meeting. Trump is extremely unreliable, but at his Wednesday press conference he too said the subject was not discussed on Friday. (Update, Thursday, 7:15 p.m.: Citing “sources,” CNN is now reporting that FBI director James Comey told Trump about the two-page synopsis in a “one-on-one” conversation last Friday.) Nor does any published report indicate that any of the details in the dossier have actually been verified by U.S. intelligence or any media outlet. In this light, CNN’s headline—“Intel Chiefs Presented Trump With Claims of Russian Efforts to Compromise Him”—and its assertion that “officials” believe the dossier “augment[s]” the “evidence” that Russia intended to boost Trump’s campaign is on shaky ground. At this point, it seems like “Intel Chiefs Carried Memo About Uncorroborated Blackmail Rumors into Meeting With Trump, but Didn’t Mention It to Him” might have been a more accurate headline.
This is, as they say, a fluid situation. It’s possible that Clapper is not telling the full story and that NBC’s intelligence sources are just trying to downplay their own role in creating a media shitstorm about a document that alleges that the next president of the United States paid prostitutes to pee on each other. It’s also possible that some of the allegations in the dossier will be confirmed—other outlets have identified the dossier’s author as the proprietor of a legitimate private firm, reported that the FBI took the possibility of Russia-Trump collaboration seriously enough to apply for surveillance warrants, and even asserted, though only via a secondhand source, that some CIA agents believe compromising Trump material “of a sexual nature” does exist. It’s too early to say CNN was wrong. But it’s also too early for them to take a victory lap.