The Trump Dossier: How Much Should we Believe?

On Wednesday afternoon, CNN and the Washington Post began reporting in earnest on an intriguing intelligence report, compiled by a former member of MI6. This report had been in the hands of a former British ambassador to Russia and Senator John McCain, and related to Trump’s business dealings and political ties with the Russians. On Wednesday evening, Buzzfeed published the document in full- including some unverified claims regarding the President-Elect and Russian prostitutes.

We have to be clear about where this report comes from, before we go any further. The former MI6 agent who compiled this report was reportedly stationed in Russia during the 1990s, and is ‘highly respected’ in the intelligence community. When he left the British intelligence services, he started his own intelligence firm. This firm was contracted by Jeb Bush’s campaign during the Republican primaries, and then by a group of Democratic donors during the election. He is now reportedly in hiding. 

We know that rumours of this report began spreading in October. We also know reporters from the BBC had seen this report before the election. We now know that they didn’t publish its contents because the claims were unverifiable, especially regarding Trump’s personal life. No one has seen the alleged video, nor has anyone spoken to the alleged prostitutes.

So far, so pig-gate. Once the press, or a book, publishes claims so incredible on the word of ‘someone who met someone who says they saw a photograph’, it spreads like wildfire because we want to believe it. Like pig-gate, the evidence on which Buzzfeed published the report is far too shaky to be taken at face value.

There are a handful of anomalies, though. Most glaringly: why did these allegations come out now? If this were a cynical plot to smear Trump, and the report was ready in the month before the election, why on earth are they publishing it in January? From this we must conclude either that the British are terrible at rigging elections (perhaps we should be taking some lessons from the Russians), or this isn’t a cynical smear.

Add to this the CIA’s decision to provide the one-page summary of the dossier as part of their security briefing to both the President and the President-Elect. The American intelligence community clearly believes the conclusions drawn are valid if they’re being used as found as briefing materials.

It is important to remember what was leaked. This was an intelligence dossier, not a book or article. These dossiers rarely allow for the presentation of the kind of proof journalists would need to verify a story because of the nature of the intelligence. They are also not designed for publication for a reason- including the levels of accuracy of specific claims.

When we look at the claims as a whole, something stands out. There are two pillars to this story, one that we know to be true and one that we do not. The angle that the traditional US press began the day with, that Trump has business relationships with Russian businessmen in Putin’s inner circle, has business interests of some kind in Russia and that his campaign had been in communication with the Kremlin during the election, we know to be true. The Buzzfeed angle, that Putin has some kind of record of Trump performing very specific lurid sex acts with prostitutes, we have no evidence to prove.

There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that Trump’s business empire is reliant on Russia. Wealthy Russian tycoons have been, for some time, a key market for Trump’s American property empire. The vast majority of these super-rich Russians are linked in some way to the Kremlin. Russian money, through sales to Russians and through specific shady Russian investors, kept his empire afloat and in growth for some time.

We also know that, even if Trump doesn’t actually own any property in Russia (and the assurances of a man who refuses to release any very easily collated information to back his claims up are shaky to say the least), he has had business interests there in the recent past. These include the 2013 Moscow beauty pageant, owned by Trump, to which the second set of allegations refer, but span much further. Trump has attempted to build hotels in Russia, and received gifts from Russian Presidents, in a close relationship that started before the fall of the USSR.

As for Trump’s campaign, we know there was at least contact between his team and Russian diplomats. We know Donald Trump Jr, one of his father’s most important advisors, attended an event ran by a pro-Russia think tank, joined by a wide array of Russian diplomats in October- although none of the pictures of the event released by the think tank in question showed Trump jr. We know that Russian diplomats have since talked about having had ‘contact’ with the Trump campaign during the election. There have also been reports of Carter Page, a mysterious Russia based foreign policy advisor, attending Kremlin meetings, but these are hard to find any conclusive evidence for.

We don’t, however, know if Trump has ever met Putin. In the GOP debates, he claimed to have met the Russian President on the set of an episode of 60 Minutes. This turned out to be a lie. Since then, he has denied having ever met Putin. Regardless, it was relatively clear that Trump used Russia and Russian influence as most candidates would a SuperPAC. He certainly figured out how to direct the actions of the Russian FSB without actually meeting with them; most obvious was when Trump called directly for the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails at a press conference, the Russians did it and put the results on Wikileaks.

It is fair to say that what we know is damning, perhaps enough to bring a normal President down. Yet that is all that we do know, right now, regarding the claims made in the dossier.

Russia has a long history of blackmail and secret recordings. They have hidden cameras in hotel rooms before, and they have filmed figures that have the President’s approval performing sex acts with prostitutes before- for use when they no longer have the President’s approval.

On the face of it, the idea that Putin has some dirt on Trump sounds credible. I would be surprised if Putin didn’t have some kind of dirt on a lot of world leaders, and Trump seems to take everything to extremes. There is, however, no actual proof to support this.

Where we are all very ready to believe that Trump cheated with his wife with two prostitutes in Moscow, and enjoys being urinated on, we should take these allegations with more than just a pinch of salt. Intelligence reports often struggle where it comes to properly detailing the exact wording of top secret Russian files. They do significantly better when addressing the connections between influential politicians and the networks and governments of foreign powers. 

In all our giggling, we must not lose sight of the big picture. The first pillar- the three things we know are true- is far more important than the second, even if the second is entirely correct. An American president with business ties to Russia, including influential Kremlin-backed oligarchs, is dangerous. So it a President with a shady, long standing business and political relationship in Russia, who won’t share any information to make that relationship more transparent. And, while the idea of a Russian President having dirt on an American President sounds scary, an American President with close and secretive campaign ties to the Kremlin is far worse.