1. The BBC, generally considered the gold standard in international journalism, now says that “multiple” intelligence sources—not just one—allege that “Russia is in possession of potentially embarrassing or compromising material regarding President-elect Donald Trump.”
Yesterday, the common belief in the media was that only one person, a former MI-6 agent long believed to be credible by U.S. intelligence agencies, was alleging that Russia was in possession of such explosive and damaging material. We now know that multiple individuals in European intelligence services, including one in an unnamed Eastern European intelligence service, are in possession of, and find credible, the same allegations as the trusted MI-6 source who authored the unverified report published on Tuesday by BuzzFeed.
2. Per the BBC, intelligence agents in Europe believe there is much more compromising material about Donald Trump in the possession of the Kremlin than previously believed.
According to the British news service, and as reported by an internationally respected publication, The Week, there is, as to the most salacious (”golden shower” and “sex party”) allegations in the memo, “more than one tape, not just video, but audio as well, on more than one date, in more than one place, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
On Tuesday, the assumption had been that—at most—one compromising tape of Mr. Trump’s sexual activities was in the possession of the Kremlin, and that any other sources who could confirm these facts had been “coerced to disappear.”
3. The name of the MI-6 agent who is thought to have prepared the memo published by Buzzfeed has been identified, and he has fled his home for fear he will be assassinated—presumably, though we cannot yet know for certain, by the Russians or Trump allies. Whatever his reasoning, his reaction to what’s happened casts a pall over claims that his report was merely a frivolous fiction.
The author of the memo, Christopher Steele, is apparently a well-respected intelligence consultant whose contacts in Russia are the product of many, many years of clandestine service there. The fact that Steele, who owns several businesses in good standing (and a very large home) in England, is now on the run for his life does not conform to the Trump narrative that, despite being a professional paid for his work—and despite producing shockingly detailed accounts of an alleged plot hatched by the Kremlin and the Trump campaign—Steele was in fact trying to create “disinformation.”
4. The NBC News report that came out Wednesday, and which the Trump transition team believes exonerates them, in fact is not only contradicted by U.S. intelligence services but in no way exculpates the Trump team.
The CNN report that preceded the Buzzfeed release of the controversial memo made three claims: (1) that a summary of the memo had been part of briefing materials presented to President Obama and Donald Trump; (2) that the FBI was still investigating the allegations in the memo; and (3) that Congress plans to investigate the allegations. The NBC report did not contradict, to any extent, either of the latter two claims. As to the first, it merely clarified that while the memo was brought to the briefing by intelligence officials, it was not ultimately presented to Trump. Whether it was presented to Obama is unclear, meaning that this portion of CNN’s first claim may be correct. Indeed, it is even unclear whether the other part of CNN’s first claim is incorrect, as NBC relied on a single source who wasn’t at the meeting, and no one who was at the meeting (including anyone on the Trump team) will reveal what happened there.
NBC further reports, without additional clarification, documentation, or confirmation from witnesses, that U.S. intelligence services consider the memo “disinformation”—a term used to denote false, often propagandistic information deliberately compiled by a bad actor to mislead readers. NBC has no evidence that Steele (employed for decades by England, our nation’s closest ally, and with no known U.S. or Russian political affiliations) is a bad actor. Indeed, the BBC today confirmed he is not, as did other organizations who profiled him. So there is every reason to think that Steele had both the ability and the means and the good faith to compile the information he did and that he still believes his multiply-sourced information to be accurate—so much so that he considers its public release to have put his life in danger.
5. In a way most former or current criminal attorneys, like myself, would deem prima facie evidence of “consciousness of guilt,” Trump lied repeatedly—and needlessly—at his Wednesday press conference, and almost always on matters directly related to the Russia memo.
Trump spent some time reminiscing, and in some detail, about a trip to Moscow from over three years ago that he would have no particular reason to remember other than it now being mentioned repeatedly in a leaked memo accusing him of treason. He claimed that during the trip he specifically and repeatedly demanded of his entourage that they be on their best behavior because they were likely being filmed by Russia’s clandestine intelligence agency, the FSB. Trump appeared—in the sloppy, after-the-fact cover-up kind of way that every day gets petty criminals nailed during misdemeanor and felony trials—to be trying to craft a story that would be responsive, in a targeted manner, to the myriad allegations now stacked against him. He added to this reminiscence of Moscow that because he is a germaphobe, he couldn’t possibly have hired Russian hookers to perform a urination ceremony for him—despite the fact that the Steele memo doesn’t allege that he was ever touched by any urine during the spectacle.
Trump further claimed, in what is a known lie, that he has absolutely no ties to Russia of any kind. This claim, contradicted by every piece of reporting done by every news agency in America—and even contradicted by his own son, Don Jr., who has said that “a disproportionate cross-section” of the Trump Organization’s business is in Russia (which would mean that the organization does or did billions of dollars of business there and has made the sort of ties there commensurate with that amount of business)—is so obviously false that any objective observer would have regarded it as the nervous lie of someone caught red-handed in a crime. Today, CNN began the process of making that case.
Trump’s strangest lie was his claim that, between last night and this morning, he summoned Michael Cohen to Trump Tower and demanded to see his passport. There is no evidence this meeting ever occurred, or that Trump conducted any other “overnight” investigation into the 35 pages of claims made in the Steele memo—many involving Carter Page, a man who worked for Trump until he was fired for (allegedly) being too close to Russia, and who Trump claims to somehow have never met—and so it’s unclear why Trump would feel the need to spin this story of personally sleuthing (if ineffectively and in a cursory fashion) claims he committed acts of treason.
6. Earlier reporting claiming that the FBI had definitely sought and definitely failed to receive a FISA court warrant to eavesdrop on Trump campaign staff was found to be—most likely—false.
The Guardian reports that while the FISA court returned the FBI’s first application because it wanted the FBI to narrow its focus, “according to one report [in Heat Street] the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October.” While this second report remains unconfirmed, it is also uncontradicted by other credible sources, even as the first report, from The Guardian, contradicts Trump supporters’ confident claims, on Tuesday, that the FISA court rejected the FBI’s warrant application on the grounds that the Bureau’s evidence against the Trump campaign was too thin. Why does this matter? If, as believed, the FBI was relying in part on the Steele memo to secure its FISA warrant, the fact that the FISA court turned down the application due to over-broadness rather than the unlikelihood of criminal conduct is telling. Moreover, the fact that the FBI may have obtained a warrant and now appears to (per the slyly leaked implications of Senator Ron Wyden during a Wednesday committee hearing) still be investigating the Trump-Russia ties may mean that the FBI has wiretap evidence on the case that it has not yet disclosed to Congress. All of this is terrible news for the Trump team.
7. Claims that the Steele memo was filled with inaccuracies, and that it is provable that the memo contains inaccuracies, were found to be false.
Across numerous news reports reporting on the content of the 35-page memo, just four “inaccuracies” have been found thus far. One, a misspelling, can be ignored. Another, in which a wealthy Russian suburb is described as being reserved for party officials from the Kremlin rather than (as is actually the case) simply most easily afforded by these well-to-do party bosses, appears as likely to be a translation issue or miscommunication between Steele and a Russian source as anything else. A third involves a misstatement regarding an unrelated matter—the status of a Russian bank.
The fourth “inaccuracy” involves whether or not Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, ever traveled to Prague for a clandestine meeting with Kremlin intermediaries. At present, the only contradiction to this report is Cohen’s own word, as his “alibi” contains a paper trail only for a single day — August 29 — when the Steele memo says the meeting happened sometime “in August or September,” later winnowing that to “the last week of August or the first week of September.” While of course Cohen’s word proves nothing in any case, as if the memo is accurate he could be tried for treason and imprisoned for life, his claim that his passport has no stamp from the Czech Republic was found on Wednesday not to be probative, as in fact hundreds of people on social media pointed out that one can often travel around the EU without receiving a single passport stamp, and that Cohen would not have been using his own passport during such a trip in any case.
Meanwhile, other claims made in the memo appeared to be prescient—such as one of the memo’s most explosive claims, that the Trump campaign changed its policy on the Ukraine as part of its dealings with the Kremlin. The timing of meetings described (over the summer) by Steele in his memos, and the Trump campaign’s pro-Russia amendments to the GOP platform and other subsequent actions, appear to align.
In sum, there is nothing that happened on Wednesday that alleviated the danger Trump’s presidency is now in due to the Steele memo, and much to suggest that things just got far worse for him and his team.
The NBC News report the Trump transition team spent all day trumpeting simply had nothing to do with the content of the Steele memo, only whether CNN was correct that the memo was physically “presented” to Trump during his briefing. And NBC’s subsequent misuse of the word “disinformation” in its breathless reporting-cum-CNN takedown—”disinformation” being a word it takes from a single source who wasn’t at the briefing, and which conflicts with all other reporting on this issue, given what the word means—is possibly a greater journalistic malfeasance than the accidental error committed by CNN yesterday.