Just 10 days before his inauguration as our 45th president, Donald Trump’s nascent administration has been turned upside down by new accusations of secret Russian machinations that aided his election. These new allegations are largely unsubstantiated and salacious to a degree never seen before about any American president.
First, CNN fired a shot across Trump’s bow late yesterday with a report alleging deep links between the president-elect and the Kremlin. Specifically, CNN stated that the heads of our Intelligence Community, who recently briefed Trump on Russian hacking and propaganda during 2016 that tried to influence our election, also informed the president-elect that Russian intelligence has compromising materials on him.
Kompromat, as they call it in Moscow, is the mother’s milk of Kremlin espionage, and given Trump’s larger-than-life persona, with its decades of dodgy finances and edgy dalliances with women, it should surprise no one that Russian spies have juicy information there which the public hasn’t seen, particularly given the president-elect’s numerous trips to Russia going back to 1987.
CNN noted that a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official with long experience in Russian matters had been circulating in Washington since late last year, and was causing heartburn for American spies, since its allegations were explosive. Most seriously, it posited an on-going clandestine relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to swing the election Trump’s way.
Just as the commentariat began to shudder at the implications of this bombshell, buzzfeed (BZFD) released the actual dossier, 35 pages crammed with allegations of grave wrongdoing, including espionage by Trump surrogates against fellow Americans. This was a rather standard example of raw human intelligence reporting, a mishmash of claims, some of them obviously untrue. But the essence of its case—that Trump has been playing footsie with Vladimir Putin for years and knowingly accepted his secret help to win the White House—may well turn out to be true.
The media, unaccustomed to seeing raw HUMINT reports, acted aghast at the salacious nature of some of the claims in the dossier: Trumpian sex romps caught on camera by Russian spies, our new commander-in-chief paying prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed where President Obama had slept. Whether those particular claims are true or not—and they ought to be looked at with immense skepticism and even the PEOTUS himself said today that his infamy as a germophobe, which way predates these accusations, ought to raise concerns about some of these tales—there’s no doubt that Putin’s Federal Security Service, the all-seeing FSB, keeps close tabs on foreign VIP’s when they’re on their turf. If Trump was unwise enough to engage in randy behavior in Russia, the FSB unquestionably has it on video.
Some of the dossier’s other claims are almost pedestrian. Putin long ago showed his hand, so the idea that he ordered his spy-minions to help Trump move into the White House isn’t exactly shocking, even if the alleged details of that sordid game may be. Moreover, claims that people like Paul Manafort and Carter Page, who were both officially purged from the Trump campaign last year for their glaringly obvious Kremlin links, kept talking to the Russians, sub rosa, right up to election day, are wholly credible.
The media is focusing on the juicy aspects of the dossier at the expense of the only truly important and potentially game-changing one. That’s the allegation that Trump’s representatives had clandestine meetings last summer with Russian government representatives—that’s the nice way of saying spies—to coordinate their secret anti-Hillary activities.
The report names several Russian representatives said to have met with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, including Oleg Solodukhin, who serves in Prague, posing as a diplomat, but is actually well known to Czech counterintelligence as a Kremlin spy. So far, so plausible—particularly since Prague is a hotbed of Russian espionage, and the number of Kremlin spies pretending to be diplomats there is remarkably high.
It’s time for some clarity. If Trump’s lawyer secretly met with Russian spies to coordinate anti-Hillary activities, it’s difficult to term that activity anything but treasonous, not to mention the “smoking gun” that links the president-elect to Putin. This claim, if true, would sink the Trump presidency before it even begins.
But did the meeting actually happen?
It’s looking less and less likely.
Jake Tapper from CNN, which has been very tough on Trump, tweeted before the press conference that “Government source confirms different Michael Cohen was in Prague.” Then Trump himself said his team had asked Cohen for his passport and confirmed that he had never been to the Czech Republic, a stance Cohen himself had taken by tweeting a picture of his passport—a bizarre gesture since any stamps indicating he had been to the Czech Republic would be inside the passport, not on the front jacket. If Michael Cohen, well known as a Trump loyalist and highly recognizable, had visited Prague in the summer, some proof of that trip would have likely surfaced by now. And it would have been incredibly reckless, even for a risk-taker like Trump, to state affirmatively that Cohen had not been in Prague if he actually had. So it’s more than likely that charge—the most damaging in the dossier, if not the most lurid—is false. But that doesn’t mean all the rest of the charges are false.
This invariably brings to mind another strange saga of an alleged meeting in Prague. Back in 2002, as the Bush White House assembled an intelligence case to sell invading Saddam’s Iraq, reports circulated of a supposed rendezvous in the Czech capital, a few months before 9/11, between Iraqi intelligence and Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of Al-Qaida’s Planes Operation.
This was exactly what the White House wanted to hear, since it tied Saddam to 9/11, and it was hardly implausible on the face of it. Atta really had moved around Europe a lot—where exactly nobody could be sure—and Iraqi intelligence had a robust presence in Prague, where they surveilled American diplomatic facilities in a sinister fashion. However, hard evidence of any meeting was lacking.
White House pressure on the Intelligence Community mounted—I got caught up in it too, searching vainly for proof of Atta’s secret trip to Prague—and the hunt grew intense. The Czechs eventually backed away, their security service, known as BIS, officially deciding that Atta had not been in Prague and therefore could not have met with Iraqi spies. It all appeared to be a case of honest misunderstanding combined with circular reporting—and a Bush administration desperate for the the story to be true.
Back to today: on cue, right-wing social media has come to the president-elect’s defense, absurdly claiming that the dossier is an Internet hoax that fooled anti-Trump Republicans. There is as much evidence for this claim as for the assertion that the dossier was compiled by Jimmy Hoffa with help from Bigfoot.
For their part, the Russians are denying everything. Castigating the dossier as “pulp fiction” and a “clear attempt to damage relations,’ the Kremlin is following the “fake news” path illuminated by Trump’s fans in the West. This lives up to the old spy wag that you should only believe any report when Moscow publicly denies it.
At this point, it’s functionally impossible to differentiate between social media claims made by the Trump administration, the Kremlin, the Wikileaks-Greenwald axis, and the Alt-Right. Now that Moscow has taken up the Nazi-frog meme beloved by the Alt-Right, any propaganda line between these groups has been erased altogether.
As usual, the president-elect is denying anything and everything, howling gigantic curses via Twitter against his foes and their “fake news.” He has pointed the finger at the Intelligence Community, bizarrely comparing 2017 America to Nazi Germany. Trump’s online meltdown has included a lot of tweeting in capital letters, and has cited the Kremlin as proof of his innocence. We’re in a new and uncharted era when the soon-to-be-president thinks Moscow is to be taken at face value in espionage matters.
In truth, the provenance of the 35-page dossier is well known in proper channels. Some of its assertions have been made by other NATO intelligence agencies, privately. Some of its claims are false, some are true, and some may linger between truth and fiction indefinitely. What’s important here is that the IC leadership decided to brief a small circle of the most senior American officials on that dossier’s findings. They don’t do that, ever—treating raw private intelligence reports by foreigners as worthy of briefing to “the top”—unless they can corroborate significant portions of it.
The Czechs are laying low. BIS is avoiding any public comment on Cohen’s alleged visit to their capital—and after the messy public spat back in 2002, who can blame them? The latest firm report from Prague indicates that BIS believes Cohen didn’t land at Prague airport, but it’s very easy to enter the Czech Republic from its neighbors, all of which are fellow members of the European Union, so there are no border controls. Anybody can drive right in, without any passports being stamped.
The president-elect wants this mess to go away at once, before it swallows his new administration whole. This morning, in his first press conference since last summer, Trump’s team was adamant that the dossier is “fake news.” The president elect angrily pronounced leaks of intelligence a “disgrace,” seeming to forget how gleefully his campaign greeted IC leaks which badly harmed Hillary Clinton over her emails.
Sean Spicer, his spokesman, shared that anger and unambiguously stated that Cohen never visited Prague, there was no meeting with any Russians, and the entire story is bogus. CNN today reported that this may be a case of mistaken identity, since another Michael Cohen visited Prague at the time in question (eerily, the same thing happened with Atta’s pre-9/11 visit to the Czech capital: it was the wrong Mohammed Atta). This matter can be quickly resolved if Trump’s lawyer sits down with the FBI, on the record, to clear this matter up before the inauguration. Unlike Mohammed Atta 15 years ago, Michael Cohen is available for interviews.
News organizations more respectable than Buzzfeed sat on the dossier for months, sensing it was a spooky morass of truth and fiction that could not be untangled to meet proper journalistic standards. Several tried, in fact, but after efforts to verify the claims failed, they declined to publish.
There is a darker possibility, however—namely that the dossier was leaked to muddy the waters, perhaps even to distract from even more troubling information about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin.
Russian intelligence calls this provokatsiya—provocation—and it’s as commonplace as kompromat in their ranks. This wouldn’t be the first time that Kremlin spies leaked secret information, partly true, to throw spies and journalists off the real trail. “It would be what I’d do,” explained a former KGB senior officer whom I’ve known for years. Possessing long experience with provocation against Western governments, my friend added how Russian spies would approach this: “I would certainly let the media know some of what we have on Trump, to confuse reporters, and also to let the new president know we can take him down at any time, so he better do what Moscow wants.”
As I recently explained, the heart of Trump’s longstanding secret ties to Russia is about money, not espionage. The Trump Organization gives the appearance of possessing dubious financial ties to Russian organized crime, which is linked to the Kremlin and its intelligence agencies. Putin and his spies know all about Trump—they have no need for clandestine meetings in Central European capitals to arrange anything.
Trump needs this issue to go away, and he can easily make that happen by releasing his tax returns and financial records for the last couple decades, thereby demonstrating that he has no dark Kremlin secrets. However, in his presser today, the president-elect stated that nobody but journalists care about his tax returns, which he reiterated he has no intention of releasing to the public.
This continued stalling is a grave mistake, and things will only get nastier as more of Trump’s secrets are leaked to the media. Having repeatedly warned the president-elect to avoid needless fights with our spies, since they know things, let me add that it only will get worse from here if Trump doesn’t come clean soon.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.