US intelligence chiefs last week presented US President Barack Obama and US president-elect Donald Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
The summary is based on memos generated by political operatives seeking to derail Trump’s candidacy. Details of the reports began circulating in the fall and were widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington.
The two-page summary, first reported by CNN, was presented as an appendix to the US intelligence agencies’ report on Russian hacking efforts during the election, the officials said.
The material was not corroborated, and the New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims.
However, intelligence agencies considered it so potentially explosive that they decided Obama, Trump and US congressional leaders needed to be told about it and informed that the agencies were actively investigating it.
Intelligence officials were concerned that the information would leak before they informed Trump of its existence, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.
On Tuesday night, Trump responded on Twitter: “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
In an appearance recorded for NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, said of the claims in the opposition research memos: “He has said he is not aware of that.”
Since the intelligence agencies’ report on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the hacking and leaks of Democratic e-mails to hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and help Trump, the president-elect and his aides have said that Democrats are trying to mar his election victory.
The decision of top intelligence officials to give the president, the president-elect and the so-called “Gang of Eight” — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.
The appendix summarized opposition research memos prepared mainly by a retired British intelligence operative for a Washington political and corporate research firm. The firm was paid for its work first by Trump’s Republican rivals and later by supporters of Clinton. The Times has checked on a number of the details included in the memos, but has been unable to substantiate them.
The memos suggest that for many years, Putin’s government has looked for ways to influence Trump, who has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to investigate real-estate deals or to oversee the Miss Universe competition, which he owned for several years. Trump never completed any major deals in Russia, though he discussed them for years.
The former British intelligence officer who gathered the material about Trump is considered a competent and reliable operative with extensive experience in Russia, US officials said.
However, the British intelligence officer passed on what he heard from Russian informants and others, and what they told him has not yet been vetted by US intelligence.
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with 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 Trump in the future.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed various lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes to win influence over Trump.
The memos describe several purported meetings during last year’s presidential campaign between Trump representatives and Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest, including Russian hacking of the US Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
If some of the unproven claims in the memos are merely titillating, others would amount to extremely serious, potentially treasonous acts.
One of the opposition research memos quotes an unidentified Russian source as claiming that the hacking and leaking of Democratic e-mails was carried out “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.”
In return, the memo said: “The TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue,” because Putin “needed to cauterize the subject.”
Michael Cohen, a lawyer and adviser to Trump, also denied on Twitter a specific claim in the opposition research involving him. One of the memos claims that Cohen went to Prague in August or September last year to meet with Kremlin representatives and to talk about Russian hacking of Democrats.
“I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews,” Cohen said on Twitter on Tuesday night.
In addition, in a recent interview with the New York Times, one of the Russian officials named in the memo as having met with Cohen, Oleg Solodukhin, denied that he had met with Cohen or any other Trump representative.
“I don’t know where that rumor came from,” Solodukhin, of the Russian organization Rossotrudnichestvo, which promotes Russian culture and interests abroad, said in a telephone interview.
The FBI obtained the material long before the election and some of the memos in the opposition research dossier are dated as early as June last year. However, agents have struggled to confirm it, according to federal officials familiar with the investigation.
Allies of former US senator Harry Reid, who retired at the end of the year, said the disclosures validated his call last summer for an FBI investigation into Trump’s links to Russia.
Democrats on Tuesday night pressed for a thorough investigation of the claims in the memos.
US Representative Eric Swalwell, a member of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called for law enforcement to find out whether the Russian government had had any contact with Trump or his campaign.
“The president-elect has spoken a number of times, including after being presented with this evidence, in flattering ways about Russia and its dictator,” Swalwell said. “Considering the evidence of Russia hacking our democracy to his benefit, the president-elect would do a service to his presidency and our country by releasing his personal and business income taxes, as well as information on any global financial holdings.”