There exists a video online that, considering the subject matter, astoundingly few people have seen. It begins in medias res: In a chair, at the foot of a bed, sits the unmistakable figure of Donald Trump. He is offering what seem to be instructions to two near-nude women on the bed, one of whom is bottomless and standing over the other, who appears to be lying on her side.
I myself first became aware of it on Jan. 25, when New Republic writer Libby Watson texted me a screenshot of a DM she’d received on Twitter.
I opened the (now-defunct) Streamable link with the expectation that it would be an obvious fake, mostly because it seemed absurd to think a few random people on Twitter had gotten their hands on something that had been the subject of two years of constant speculation.
Before we go any further, bear this in mind, so no one gets confused: The pee tape is fake. This pee tape, anyway. Whether this pee tape is the pee tape—perhaps you’ve heard of it as the “piss tape,” or the “pee-pee tape,” or the “golden shower video”—is one of the things that are still unclear about it.
But it is very far from being an obvious fake. There are a number of reasons to believe that this pee tape would be real, and there are also a number of reasons to believe it is not. One reason to believe it is real is that it does exist—an extremely lifelike, extremely grainy video clip depicting Trump in the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, while two nude or near-nude women cavort in front of him—and you can watch it right now. The more I tried to prove to myself it wasn’t real, the less confident I became in my own skepticism.
This was, however, also a very, very powerful reason to keep believing it was fake: that the most extraordinarily damaging piece of evidence against the president could just be waiting there, in plain sight, with no one doing anything about it. If there are any lessons we should have learned by this point, in 2019, they’re that nothing could ever be that easy, and that few enough things are real.
What we know about the alleged tape
What is it that we understand ourselves to be viewing, when we view the pee tape? The public first became aware of the item and/or concept we’re referring to as the pee tape on Jan. 10, 2017 when BuzzFeed first published the Steele dossier, a collection of then-unverified intelligence memos alleging various connections between Trump and Russia. A number of the claims have since proved true, thanks to the Mueller report; others have not.
The most salacious of the allegations—that Trump had had a urine-soaked run-in with Russian sex workers while staying in the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow—falls into the unproved category. Here’s the dossier’s claim in full:
This unverified claim, that Trump ordered sex workers to urinate on a bed once slept in by former President Barack Obama, has been the subject of considerable fascination since it was published. More specifically, it has been the subject of my fascination. While people solemnly yet frantically held forth on national security and the possible influence of foreign powers, somewhere just over the horizon lurked the unseen image of our president supposedly conducting a symphony of urine. It was objectively hilarious that this gross and sleazy vignette might be the focus of national news, if not the fulcrum of history. I wanted to believe. I wanted to see it.
But I was certainly not alone. That brief bit of intel even inspired Stephen Colbert to go so far as to visit that same Moscow hotel room for an investigation in July 2017. In the process of examining the room, Colbert at one point broke an ashtray, only for the room’s phone to immediately ring. The front desk claimed that an alarm had been triggered.
Perhaps more curiously, in a bit that didn’t make it to air but was later reported by the Daily Beast, Colbert and his team discovered wiring behind a mirror that didn’t actually seem to require any electricity whatsoever. So some sort of surveillance setup certainly doesn’t seem out of the question.
According to a footnote on Page 239 of the Mueller report, however, while investigators did conclude that tapes of something may exist, they also concluded those tapes were likely fake:
On October 30, 2016, Michael Cohen received a text from Russian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze that said, “Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know … .” Rtskhiladze said “tapes” referred to compromising tapes of Trump rumored to be held by persons associated with the Russian real estate conglomerate Crocus Group, which had helped host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Russia. Cohen said he spoke to Trump about the issue after receiving the texts from Rtskhiladze. Rtskhiladze said he was told the tapes were fake, but did not communicate that to Cohen.
Still, for those of us who preferred not to let Rtskhiladze’s claims ruin the dream, stories kept accumulating around the supposed incident. About a year and a half prior to the Mueller report’s release, CNN claimed that “multiple sources said the offer to send women to Trump’s room came from a Russian who was accompanying Emin Agalarov, a pop star whose father is a billionaire oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Emin and his father, Aras Agalarov, are vice president and president of the Crocus Group, respectively; Emin told CNN, through a lawyer, that he “has no knowledge of that ever happening.”
That same CNN report also claimed that “President Donald Trump’s long-time confidant Keith Schiller privately testified that he rejected a Russian offer to send five women to then private-citizen Trump’s hotel room during their 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, according to multiple sources from both political parties with direct knowledge of the testimony.”
According to NBC, Schiller said that he took the offer as a joke and immediately told the man making the proposition, “We don’t do that type of stuff.” Schiller’s claim not to do that type of stuff should be considered in the light of the fact that in 2011, adult film star and director Stormy Daniels had told In Touch Weekly that, whenever she needed to contact Trump during the course of their 2006 affair, she’d go through Schiller: “Keith was always with him. That’s how I got in touch with him. I never had Donald’s cellphone number. I always used Keith’s.”
Regardless, Emin Agalarov and Schiller were side questions. The central premise of the pee tape story is that on Nov. 9, 2013, while he was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, Trump watched prostitutes perform sex acts involving urination on the bed of the presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, and he was secretly filmed as it happened. The story contains its own ultimate standard of verification: If it happened then, by definition, there would be a recording of it. There may have been rumors about it and follow-up rumors (possibly based on the original rumors), but despite my constant asking for it, there was nothing resembling the video itself. At least, that was the case until this past January.
Where did the pee tape come from?
When I clicked on the link, I was expecting to see some sort of over-lit, terribly acted parody porno, maybe with a guy in an off-kilter Trump wig talking to women with fake Russian accents. Instead, I got bleary, claustrophobic shadows. The clip is punctuated with jerky, sporadic zooms, making it hard to get a sense of what it is you’re viewing. What you’re watching is not video of the thing itself, but what appears to be a handheld recording of a screen that is playing the video of the thing itself. There’s no sound and no indication of what (or who) else might be in the room with the screen you’re seeing secondhand.
The fact that it is so blurry—the figure in the chair, jacketless in shirt sleeves, is obviously Trump, but the facial features are indistinct—introduces doubt in both directions. It could be anyone: an actor who looks like Trump, someone wearing a Mission: Impossible Trump mask, a deepfake of Trump’s head patched in from elsewhere, or some other trick that wouldn’t survive well-lit, high-definition scrutiny. On the other hand, no matter how much you examine him, you can’t say it isn’t the person so many people want it to be.
All this considered, my immediate instinct was to disprove. I looked up photos of the presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and latched onto the carpet. The one in the video was much darker than the one in the pictures. No reason to look any further, I told myself. And the man in the chair looked, to my eye, as if he was wearing a white tie and vest. Trump was photographed on the night of the 2013 Moscow Miss Universe pageant, and he was not wearing a white-tie tuxedo. Instead, Trump wore what he wears every night and nearly always: a suit with a bold colored tie over a white dress shirt with French cuffs. Here’s how Trump’s outfit looked shortly before the activities described in the dossier would have occurred:
Who else had seen this video? And who had shared it in the first place? As far as I’ve been able to tell, the video had first appeared online sometime around Jan. 15, 2019. In a post on 4chan that afternoon, one user remarked on how “that Trump pee tape vid from this morning just vanished from the internet.”
While it may still have been posted earlier, the first 4chan appearance I could find happened that day at noon, when a user posted a screenshot and a link to a since-deleted LiveLeak page. A half-hour later, at 12:33 p.m., another user uploaded a 25-second version of the video (LiveLeak watermark included) under the file name TP.webm. The responses to the second post were fairly evenly split on the video’s veracity, but both instances did seem to be the first time anyone there had seen it.
One minute before the video’s 4chan debut, though, a Twitter user with the handle @4tuneAn0n and the display name Sue D Nim (very clever) posted a nonwatermarked version of the video, @-ing Trump in the process.
This is the earliest upload I’ve been able to find. In nine months, this particular unwatermarked version has been viewed a total of 15 times.
Various versions of the video were uploaded to sites like LiveLeak and Imgur, where they garnered anywhere between a few dozen and several thousand views before being removed, usually for violating the websites’ guidelines (unsurprisingly, versions of it can still be found on a number of porn sites). At the time of publication, a few uploads remain live for whatever reason, like this YouTube version posted on Jan. 23 by user “anona anona” under the title TRUMP MOSCOW TAPE and this Imgur version that’s been seen nearly 10,000 times. The video was first shared on the Something Awful forums on Jan. 26 at around 1 a.m. A different thread on the same forum titled “The Piss Tape Is Real” now houses the vast majority of the existing discussion and analysis around the clips.
Is there pee in the tape?
The video was obviously only one piece of some longer recording. But was it the essential piece? Nobody was hoping to just see the Trump-sits-around-a-hotel-room-with-women tape, after all; this was supposed to be the pee tape.
Here’s what happens: The man clutches something in his left hand and points with the other. Then, after about 10 seconds, the clip jumps forward in time, with the woman who had previously been lying down suddenly propped up on her elbows (her face is pixel-blurred) as the man in the chair looks on and grins.
The camera filming the video mostly zooms in toward the parts of the screen with the Trump figure in it. Now and then, though, it pulls back and swings over to show more of the women. At one point, there is a sense of motion and a brief, bright flash of something, like light bouncing off falling liquid, between her knees:
If not urine itself, it is at the very least meant to appear like urine. Whether the stream lands on the reclining woman or the bed itself remains unclear.
What can we learn from Pisstape.org?
The most reliable source of the video at present is pisstape.org, which, since the Mueller report dropped on April 18, has existed solely to host various versions of the video that have cropped up since its initial January appearance. Prior to that, the site had merely redirected to a Trump-focused Something Awful thread. I wrote to the tips address on the site to see if the person or people behind it would answer questions. They wrote back, and we settled into a lengthy correspondence through email and Twitter messages. They remained anonymous but freely answered questions in normal idiomatic American English.
According to the person behind the site, they’d already owned the domain—“It seemed funny enough to justify the $2 to register it,” they explained, which made sense to me—and had merely wanted to preserve the files once they appeared.
“But mainly,” they told me over email, “it’s DMCA bait. If I get a takedown notice, at least then we’ll get some sort of answer as to who made this. I half expected to get one from Sacha Baron Cohen or some other edgelord.” So far, they have yet to be contacted by anyone claiming ownership.
That doesn’t mean there’s been no interest, though. Looking through the site’s access logs, I found that visitors to pisstape.org have had IP addresses tied to locations including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (which is primarily funded by the Department of Energy), the Aerospace Corporation (a federally funded nonprofit), the Swedish Tax Administration, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the U.K. Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, the United States Antarctic Program, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton.
Various journalists have also come across the video—someone at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was another of the site’s repeat visitors—with some even going so far as to sort of semi-allude to having seen it in public.
Could it be the real tape?
Every few months, after I’d dismissed it in my mind as an obvious fraud, someone new would bring the tape up to me. Usually they’d just seen it and wanted to see what I thought. I would retread my initial suspicions and explain that, while it must be a fake, it’s certainly a very good fake. And each time, I’d walk away a little less convinced.
After all, it’s true the carpeting looks too dark, but so does the whole room. Surely even light carpeting might look gloomy under those conditions. And on closer inspection, is that really a vest the Trump figure is wearing? Or is it just part of his shirt? Is the man in the chair even wearing a tie at all?
It’s impossible to say with any certainty. Nor, even if it is a vest, is it is completely inconceivable that at some point on Nov. 9, 2013, after being photographed in his suit, Trump might have changed into white-tie.
And just as the real Donald Trump did on the night of the pageant, the Trump-like figure in the clip appears to be wearing French cuffs. While the video is too blurry (conveniently so) for any authoritative comparison, the figure’s cufflinks do certainly appear similar.
In the interest of transparency, I should note this piece of evidence has been met with mixed reactions. One friend told me, “It definitely looks like it could be the same cufflink,” while another said, “Oh no, you’ve lost your mind.” This point remains inconclusive.
More convincing than the fuzzy accessories, though, are the figure’s mannerisms. For instance, near the end of the 25-second version of the video, we see the Trump figure beginning to type on what appears to be his phone.
And here’s the known, actual Trump doing the very same.
While it’s not unusual to see someone Trump’s age typing with a single index finger, the general silhouette is uncanny.
The likeness of the room itself is perhaps even more striking. On the Something Awful forums, a user named Xaris posted a relatively convincing comparison of paneling in the two rooms using a screenshot from the video and a promotional image from the Ritz-Carlton’s website.
On the side of the wall that lies behind the headboard, the paneling comes in varied widths.
The spacing of the panels seems to line up perfectly, once you adjust for the angle from which the clip was filmed. And speaking of that angle: The video from Stephen Colbert’s 2017 trip to Moscow provided a look at the full suite, including the wall opposite the video scene—with a television sitting more or less exactly where the hidden camera would have to have been.
It all felt genuinely jarring. In order to reassure myself the video was a fake, I needed to consult an expert. Jamieson Fry, a visual effects artist turned director in Los Angeles, told me that “filming a handheld video of another video playing on a screen absolutely destroys the quality, and is exactly the kind of thing you’d do to intentionally obscure detail and sell a fake.”
The lighting, too, seemed suspect at first. “It appears that there’s a single soft white source directly above our subjects, somewhere on the ceiling between 45 and the buttocks,” Fry told me. “That would be a strange place for the only light in the room—above the bottom left corner of the bed, if I’m understanding the geography correctly—conveniently located so that 45’s face is primarily cast in shadow, and the buttocks are perfectly lit.”
To illustrate his point, Fry offered this:
What was the real light source in the room? Again, Colbert’s segment in the presidential suite gave us additional angles to work with, including a view of the ceiling that we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.
I sent the screenshot to Fry, hopeful that the revealed lighting would definitively prove that the two scenes simply could not have occurred in the same room.
Instead, Fry wrote back, “Wow.”
According to him, the lighting we see in the Colbert segment is “exactly the kind of setup” that might create the conditions we see in the clip. “Previously, I had said that the scene appears to be lit by a single soft white source mounted above our subjects (which to me initially read like film lighting, since lamps or a chandelier/ceiling bulbs would cast multiple, harsher shadows),” Fry wrote. “But a recessed edge-lit square could definitely create what we’re seeing in the video.”
Fry was kind enough to offer an updated lighting illustration.
“Having an indirect light source bouncing off of the white ceiling and down onto the bed below would give you that soft and even top down quality,” Fry added. “And since it seemingly frames the bed from above, that would also explain the quick fall off we see on [the Trump figure] since he would be sitting directly under the edge of the square.”
Instead of giving me a reason to disbelieve, the details made it seem likely that either this video was genuinely recorded inside the Ritz-Carlton, or someone had gone to the trouble of building a point-by-point replica of the presidential suite.
The figures moving around inside the room, I was less sure about. Evan Reinhard, a color assistant at the visual effects company Framestore, agreed that the blurriness and shaky filming made it seem suspect. “The fact that his torso is completely motionless is a bit of a red flag that they purposely had an actor sit there motionless to easily composite a head back on,” Reinhard told me. “It doesn’t prove it one way or the other, of course. It’s just a hunch.”
The Trump figure seems to be saying something at the beginning of the 25-second version, but the poor video quality also thwarted my efforts to decipher what it might be. I reached out to Evan Brunell, a known lip reader and former president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but with no success. “There’s just not enough resolution to be able to see fully formed words,” Brunell told me.
Other efforts at expert analysis were rebuffed for different reasons. Joan Donovan, a misinformation expert who runs the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told me, “I just can’t stop laughing but also I’m not gonna click the link.” Which, to be honest, seemed fair. Mostly, though, I was met with silence.
What’s wrong with the tape?
One lingering doubt I had was about the molding. In the actual room, the ceiling molding begins more or less directly above the paneling. Even with the dimness and blurriness taken into account, it’s not clear that that’s the case with the room from the clip.
This is, admittedly, a nonpersuasive point of rebuttal. It’s entirely possible that any perceived discrepancy here is due to the lighting. And at this point, it’s a significantly more elaborate conspiracy theory to posit that the video was made in a near-perfect replica of the room—except for this one comparatively glaring slip-up—than that it was just filmed in the room itself.
But then, while searching for even more images of the room, I found the real discrepancy. If someone were trying to construct a replica of the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow to stage a re-creation (or the creation) of the pee tape, it turns out they overlooked a significantly larger detail than maybe the line of the molding.
The video does show an overwhelmingly accurate, and possibly perfect, depiction of the suite—but not the suite as it would have appeared on the night of Nov. 9, 2013. That’s because, between then and now, the room was entirely redone.
On Feb. 8, 2016, the Ritz-Carlton Moscow tweeted out a picture of a “sneak peek from the recently renovated Presidential Suite.” The photo did not show the master bedroom, but there were the distinctive paneling, the sconces, and the carpet. According to a Facebook post from November 2015, that renovation did indeed include the master bedroom.
For some reason, it was incredibly difficult to find any dates on precisely when the room was renovated. There’s no indication that it occurred at all on the hotel’s website, and the only still-existing references I could find were in the form of the aforementioned social media posts, which only noted that the hotel had “retouched the Presidential Suite giving it a cleaner, sharper look,” but not any actual dates.
None of this seemed particularly decisive, so I reached out to the hotel itself to ask precisely when the renovation happened. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, I finally reached spokesperson Ekaterina Mikhaylova, who would only tell me that “the renovation of the suite was in 2015.” She confirmed, however, that prior to 2015, the room would have looked the way it does here:
In the renovation, the bed shifted 90 degrees, so its headboard now sits against the wall to the left, instead of the back. The paneling changed, too: Now, it is divided into top and bottom sections. Where the back wall previously had one panel, it now has three upper and three lower ones, while on the left wall, the uniform vertical divisions were replaced with the variable spacing we see in the clip.
The lighting was also noticeably different post-renovation. While the recessed lighting in the ceiling remained untouched, the single sconce on the left was removed, and the two sconces along the back wall were added. Taken together, the changes mean that the clip was quite clearly either filmed in the renovated room itself or filmed in a room meant to model the renovated room down to the very last detail.
Still looking for a precise boundary between the old and new decor, I came across a now-deleted press release from December 2015, preserved on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, announcing the newly renovated suite. Why the release was removed from the site is unclear.
Assuming the room was not mysteriously and temporarily overhauled in the two months leading up to the Miss Universe pageant, the hotel’s tweet from September 2013 is the best evidence we have of what the room actually did look like during Trump’s stay.
The room we see in the video, then, did not exist in that form when the video would supposedly have taken place. We also know that that it couldn’t have been some other portion of the multiroom suite. According to the pre-renovation floor plan currently on the Ritz-Carlton website, there is only one master bedroom and only one large bed.
Who is supposed to see this pee tape?
One of the video’s most bizarre aspects is what hasn’t happened with it. No one has taken credit for obtaining it, and it has not been aggressively pitched to the press in the same way that, say, Guccifer 2.0 pitched the Democratic National Committee leaks to journalists. Someone went to the trouble of staging the pee tape, then they or someone else created the video of the screen. But no one has yet sought recognition or attention for it.
On Sept. 8, 2004, CBS aired a 15-minute segment on 60 Minutes, presented by Dan Rather, about what seemed to be an earthshaking news story: George W. Bush, who was then in the stretch run of his would-be reelection campaign for president, had gone absent from his duties with the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s, when he was supposed to be serving as a pilot in lieu of going to Vietnam. 60 Minutes was not the first to break the news—the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team had already reported that “Bush’s attendance at required training drills was so irregular that his superiors could have disciplined him or ordered him to active duty in 1972, 1973, or 1974”—but Rather’s report had visible proof, in the form of a series of memos that documented Bush’s failures. “I’m having trouble running interference,” one document, attributed to his superior officer and headed “Subject: CYA” read. “ … Bush wasn’t here during rating period.”
But then people noticed that the characters in the documents were not uniformly spaced, the way most early ’70s typewriter output was, but proportionally spaced, as documents word-processed on a modern computer might be. Moreover, the text included a TH in superscript, familiar to users of Microsoft Word. Complicated forensic and historical arguments broke out about the existence of proportional-spacing typewriters with superscript TH keys in the Vietnam War era, and about the likelihood of such machines being used in Texas Air National Guard offices—and all this speculation and analysis ran up against the difficult fact that what CBS had obtained were blotchy photocopies, not originals.
After nearly two weeks of a losing struggle to defend the segment, CBS apologized for having used documents it couldn’t prove were real. Two months later, Dan Rather announced he would be retiring as the anchor of CBS Evening News.
It was possible that their contents were true, regardless; it was even conceivable that someone had retyped authentic documents into an inauthentic format. The underlying story—that Bush had blown off his Vietnam-era military obligations—was still correct. But it was poisoned as a news story and a campaign issue.
No one ever established who was responsible. Roger Stone, the dirty-tricks expert who has plied his craft for Republicans from Richard Nixon to Trump, denied his own rumored involvement, telling the New Yorker in 2008 that it would have been too risky to put out damaging material against his own side in the hope it would be debunked. On the question of whether to believe Stone’s game-theoretic analysis or not, it may be helpful to remember that he is currently awaiting trial on charges of lying and obstructing justice on behalf of Trump.
Like the National Guard memos, the online pee tape is an untraceable copy. Even if the room decor were right, at least as far as we know, there would be no way to establish its provenance. In the age of deepfakes and information wars and fake news and whichever else of the hundreds of buzzwords that all mean some variation of “trust no one” you’d prefer, it’s remarkably easy for someone—anyone—to create their own video evidence of whatever it is they’d like to see. There’s a whole subreddit of people doing just that.
The pee tape was always someone’s wish-fulfilment fantasy. Watching it, before knowing it had to be false, brought on an eerie sense of exhaustion. What if it were real, and what if it made no difference? Donald Trump has been credibly, repeatedly accused of things far worse than watching a sex show set up by powerful Russians: rape, for one thing. Foreign influence on his behalf? He goes on camera and admits it and asks for more.
Someone made this video and most likely recorded it in a hotel room that costs about $18,000 a night. Was it all for the sake of feeding rumors, or for confusing everyone, or for tricking some overconfident journalist into the ultimate feat of Fake News? The only thing we can say definitively is that based on the room in which it appears to have been filmed, this can’t possibly be the real thing. Probably. But if you know anything at all about where this video came from, or who made it, please do get in touch.