A four-page House Intelligence Committee memo alleging abuse of surveillance authority raises immediate questions about the decision by former FBI Director James Comey to brief Donald Trump and then-President Barack Obama on the contents of the infamous, largely discredited 35-page anti-Trump dossier.
The memo relates that in early January 2017, prior to Trump’s inauguration, Comey briefed then President-Elect Trump and Obama on the dossier even though months later Comey would label the dossier as containing “salacious and unverified” material.
Critically, the memo relates that, after dossier author Christopher Steele was terminated months earlier as an FBI source, a “source validation report conducted by an independent unit within FBI assessed Steele’s reporting as only minimally corroborated.” Still, Comey saw fit to brief Trump and Obama on the dossier contents.
Comey’s dossier briefing to Trump was subsequently leaked to the news media, setting in motion a flurry of news media attention on the dossier, including the release of the document to the public. The briefing also may have provided the veneer of respectability to a document circulated within the news media but widely considered too unverified to publicize.
On January 10, CNN was first to report the leaked information that the controversial contents of the dossier were presented during classified briefings inside classified documents presented one week earlier to Obama and Trump.
The news network cited “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” – in other words, officials leaking information about classified briefings – revealing the dossier contents were included in a two-page synopsis that served as an addendum to a larger report on Russia’s alleged attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The documents were given to the politicians during the briefings delivered by Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, the officials told CNN.
The network reported the documents state that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” and contain “allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Months later, Brennan made clear in May 2017 testimony that after viewing all of the evidence that was available to him on the Russia probe he is not aware of any collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Just after CNN’s January 10 report on Comey’s classified briefings about the dossier, meanwhile, BuzzFeed famously published the dossier’s full unverified contents.
The New York Times used CNN’s story on Comey’s briefing to report some contents of the dossier the same day as CNN’s January 10 report on the briefings.
After citing the CNN story, the Times reported:
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with Mr. Trump in a 2013 visit to a Moscow hotel. The videos were supposedly prepared as “kompromat,” or compromising material, with the possible goal of blackmailing Mr. Trump in the future.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed various lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes in order to win influence over Mr. Trump.
The memos describe several purported meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump representatives and Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
Immediately following CNN’s article, National Intelligence Director Clapper added fuel to the media fire about the dossier by releasing a statement that he spoke to Trump to express “my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press” – referring to the leaks to CNN about the classified briefing. He called the leaks “extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
Clapper’s statement generated fresh media coverage of the dossier briefing.
Prior to CNN’s report leaking the Comey briefing to Trump, which was picked up by news agencies worldwide, the contents of the dossier had been circulating among news media outlets, but the sensational claims were largely considered too risky to publish.
All that changed when the dossier contents were presented to Obama and Trump during the classified briefings. In other words, Comey’s briefings themselves and the subsequent leak to CNN about those briefings by “multiple US officials with direct knowledge,” seem to have given the news media the opening to report on the dossier’s existence as well as allude to some of the document’s unproven claims.
In an updated version of CNN’s report, the network revealed that it had reviewed the 35-page dossier and would not report “on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.”
CNN reported that the classified briefings to Obama and Trump demonstrated the dossier information was “credible enough” to be included in such high-level briefings:
Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer. 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 information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.
When it published the full dossier, BuzzFeed reported that the contents had circulated “for months” and were known to journalists.
The website reported, “The documents have circulated for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them. Mother Jones writer David Corn referred to the documents in a late October column.”
In his statement following the leaks to CNN about the dossier briefings to Obama and Trump, Clapper also said the dossier contents had been “widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it.”
It seems the news media waited for the leak about Comey’s dossier briefings first reported by CNN before publicizing on the dossier’s existence and some of its contents.
Yet in his testimony, the FBI’s Comey claimed the opposite was the case. He claimed that he and other U.S. officials briefed Obama and Trump about the dossier contents because they wanted to alert the president and president-elect that the news media were about to release the material. It is not the usual job of the U.S. intelligence community to brief top officials about pending news media coverage.
In his prepared remarks before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 8, 2017, Comey detailed why he claimed the Intelligence Community briefed Obama and Trump on the “salacious material” – a clear reference to the dossier.
The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified. Among those reasons were: (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.
Yet the “unverified” dossier contents, determined to have been only “minimally corroborated” by the FBI, was still presented to Trump and Obama in a briefing subsequently leaked to the news media – a briefing that may have provided the aura of credibility to the largely discredited Russia conspiracy document.