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The “pee tape” claim, explained

The absurd-sounding, still-unverified tale of Trump and Russian prostitutes is back again. Here’s where it came from.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The release of former FBI Director James Comey’s new book and memos he wrote last year has plunged the United States of America into yet another round of speculation about whether the Russian government taped Donald Trump watching prostitutes urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow in 2013.

The utterly bizarre allegation — which became public by way of Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier — has never been confirmed. Indeed, beyond the hearsay of a few anonymous people, we have no evidence that it happened, and Trump himself has vociferously disputed it.

But while promoting his book, Comey told ABC News that he thought there was at least a possibility that it really took place. “I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” he said. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

Comey’s book and memos also claim Trump was fixated on rebutting the accusation in private, and that he brought it up to Comey on four separate occasions, once even claiming that though he personally wouldn’t patronize prostitutes, Vladimir Putin did once tell him “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.”

Now, the question of whether Donald Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on a bed five years ago does not, in and of itself, seem important to American public policy in any way.

Yet the “pee tape” claim instantly overshadowed all the other Trump-Russia allegations in the Steele dossier, for a few reasons. First, it purports to explain Trump’s unusually pro-Russian and pro-Putin views with the idea that the Russian government has “kompromat” on him — blackmail material that he knows about and is seeking to prevent them from releasing. Second, it’s salacious, unusual, and sexual (and, to many, funny). And third, there’s the promise that documentary evidence exists ... somewhere.

However, there are also many reasons to think the pee tape story could be complete bullshit.

For one, we have actually learned more about Steele’s sourcing for the tale, and it doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Then, of course, there was the revelation that Steele’s research was ultimately funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC, which raises some obvious questions about the project’s objectivity.

Perhaps most revealingly, though, even Steele and his allies have confessed some doubts about the “pee tape” tale to reporters they trust — a new book claims that Steele’s business partner says his dossier’s claims were “not meant to be definitive,” and that Steele himself has said there’s only a “fifty-fifty” chance this particular claim is correct. Yet still, we’re talking about it, once again.

1) What is the “pee tape” claim?

Trump and his bodyguard Keith Schiller attend the final round of the Miss Universe competition in Crocus City Hall in Moscow on November 9, 2013.
Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images

In April 2016, Clinton campaign and DNC campaign lawyer Marc Elias retained the firm Fusion GPS to research Donald Trump and his ties to Russia. Fusion then retained the services of Christopher Steele, a retired MI6 officer based in London with Russian contacts, to look into the matter.

Steele’s “dossier” of research would eventually comprise 17 reports written over a six-month period. These reports cite several (anonymous) sources of information but on the whole tell a story of years-long ties between Trump and the Russian regime, and a conspiracy to influence the election.

The “pee tape” allegation is in the very first of those reports, dated June 20, 2016. Here it is:

So the allegation is that in 2013, Trump hired “a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him,” aimed at “defiling” the bed of the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, because Barack and Michelle Obama had previously slept in that bed. (Note that the claim is not that Trump participated in this display, but rather that he requested and watched it.)

Then the implication — although it’s not explicitly stated — is that Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, recorded all this with “microphones and concealed cameras” so it could later be used for “kompromat” and “blackmail” material over Trump if necessary.

As the saying goes: Whoa ... if true.

2) Why in the world does anyone think the “pee tape” claim might be true?

Christopher Steele, author of the Steele dossier and popularizer of the “pee tape” rumor.
Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty

First, there’s Christopher Steele himself, and his own reputation. He’s a former MI6 spy who spent a few years based in Moscow in the early 1990s, and later held a top position at MI6’s Russia desk back in London. In 2009, he left the service and set up his own private research firm, Orbis. There he worked for corporate clients and at one point the English Football Association (to investigate Russia-related FIFA corruption). He’d helped out the FBI on past investigations, and his contacts there are said to view him highly.

Second, Trump was in the right place at the right time — he traveled to Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant and stayed for one night at the Ritz-Carlton. That in itself doesn’t give the allegation more credibility — Trump’s trip was high-profile and had been public knowledge years before Steele began his research — but, inconveniently for Trump, it makes it impossible to conclusively disprove the allegation.

There’s also Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller’s later testimony that a Russian business associate offered to “send five women” up to Trump’s room during this very trip — though he says he and Trump turned down the offer. Schiller also testified that later that night, as Trump was headed back to his hotel room, he and Trump discussed that earlier offer again in passing. Schiller says this was a joking conversation, but it certainly raises an eyebrow that he admits there was indeed talk of multiple prostitutes coming to Trump’s room during the trip.

Third, there was, of course, the Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election that led to a still-ongoing investigation. Between the hacking and leaking of prominent Democrats’ emails, an apparent Russian fake news and propaganda operation to help Trump, and the multiple connections between Trump advisers and Russian government-tied figures (Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos), and Trump’s own idiosyncratically pro-Russia and pro-Putin views, there was a whole lot of smoke suggesting something weird was going on between Trump and Russia.

Steele’s dossier purported to offer shocking new details to explain all this, which included the “golden showers” tale, but went far beyond it to allege a direct conspiracy on matters like the email hackings. Beyond that, there have been many previous incidents in which real or fake “kompromat” sex tapes seem to have been released to embarrass critics of the Russian government. So the claim that the Kremlin would at least try to get a Trump sex tape didn’t seem self-evidently absurd.

Finally, the US intelligence community chose to take Steele’s research seriously, and leading political figures have as well. After Trump won the election. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) handed Comey a copy of Steele’s dossier in a one-on-one meeting. But the FBI had already been looking into its claims for months beforehand, because Steele himself had reached out to them during the summer. President Obama was briefed on the dossier, including the “pee tape” claim, in January 2017. A few days later, so was President-elect Trump. And not long after that, BuzzFeed News posted the dossier, which let the public see it too.

3) What does the Steele dossier tell us about his sources for this claim?

A recent profile by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer describes how Steele’s firm Orbis does its research — essentially, it pays “collectors” elsewhere to try to ferret out information from other people who may be unaware of what’s going on. Mayer writes:

Orbis employs dozens of confidential “collectors” around the world, whom it pays as contract associates. Some of the collectors are private investigators at smaller firms; others are investigative reporters or highly placed experts in strategically useful jobs. Depending on the task and the length of engagement, the fee for collectors can be as much as two thousand dollars a day. The collectors harvest intelligence from a much larger network of unpaid sources, some of whom don’t even realize they are being treated as informants.

For the “golden showers” story in particular, the dossier mentions three sources who Steele claims had heard about what happened in the hotel room, and one other who claimed more general knowledge of Russian government “kompromat” on Trump.

  • “Source D,” identified earlier in the document as “a close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow,” is the main source for the tale of the “golden showers” show in the hotel room.
  • “Source E,” whose description is redacted, is said to have “confirmed” that the episode happened and to have said he or she knew about it at the time, and that others did as well.
  • “Source F,” who had worked at the hotel when Trump stayed there, is also said to have “confirmed the story.”
  • And “Source B,” said to be a former top Russian intelligence officer, doesn’t seem to have spoken about the “golden showers” incident but did more broadly claim that Trump’s “unorthodox behavior” in Russia had given the Russian government blackmail material over him.

Luke Harding, who interviewed Steele and his associates for his book Collusion, writes that “only one of Steele’s sources on Trump knew” of Steele’s own involvement — the others were instead speaking to his “collectors.” It also isn’t known what methods Steele used to vet the second- and thirdhand information he received.

4) What are some reasons to doubt the “pee tape” claim?

Come on. Would I really do that? Me?
Mark Wilson/Getty

The biggest reason to doubt the claim is, well, its total lack of evidence or even firsthand testimony.

None of Steele’s sources are described as having seen this “golden showers” display. Instead, the three sources are all saying this is something they heard had taken place. We have no idea who they heard it from. And it’s obviously quite possible they heard a false rumor or baseless gossip. Some people enjoy telling tall tales, spreading gossip, and making it seem like they’re “in the know” with little attention to factual accuracy or even outright fabulism.

Then there is the problem of “Source D,” the main source for the “golden showers” story — who has reportedly been publicly identified. He is said to be Sergei Millian, a Belarusian-American businessman who was unknowingly gossiping with one of Steele’s “collectors.” Yet by some accounts, Millian wildly exaggerated his closeness to the Trump Organization. As Michael Isikoff and David Corn write in their book Russian Roulette:

The memo had described Millian as a Trump intimate, but there was no public evidence he was close to the mogul at that time or was in Moscow during the Miss Universe event. Had Millian made something up or repeated rumors he had heard from others to impress Steele’s collector? [Fusion GPS head Glenn] Simpson had his doubts. He considered Millian a big talker.

Now, the dossier does claim that two other sources — “Source E” and “Source F,” the latter of whom was a Ritz-Carlton employee — are said to have confirmed Millian’s “golden showers” story. Still, Steele gives no details on what, exactly, they confirmed, or on whether their accounts differed on any points. If it is indeed a baseless rumor, they may have just heard the same baseless rumor.

There’s a broader issue too: Even though we’ve learned a lot about the Trump team and Russia in recent months, the vast bulk of the Steele dossier’s specific claims remain unverified and uncorroborated. Steele claimed there was a years-long intelligence exchange between Trump and Russian authorities, that the Trump campaign made a deal with the Russian government over the DNC email leak, that Trump adviser Carter Page dictated the timing of that leak, and that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had paid off Russian hackers. None of those claims have been shown to be true, and obviously the claims about sexual kompromat remain unverified as well.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that even Steele himself won’t vouch for every claim in his dossier. Harding reports that Steele told friends he thought his dossier was “70 to 90 percent accurate.” Yet Isikoff and Corn report that he’s been giving the “golden showers” claim even lower odds than that:

Steele’s faith in the sensational sex claim would fade over time. ... As for the likelihood of the claim that prostitutes had urinated in Trump’s presence, Steele would say to colleagues, ‘It’s fifty-fifty.’”

... [Steele business partner Christopher] Burrows later privately described the report as akin to preliminary intelligence reporting — information not analyzed, vetted, or ready for distribution. “It was not meant to be definitive,” Burrows said. “It was a report that needed to be explored further. This was not gospel. It was raw product.”

5) What has Trump said about it?

As part of his denials of any collusion between his team and Russia, Trump has also tried to specifically rebut Steele’s claim about the “golden showers” show.

At a press conference the day after Steele’s dossier was posted, Trump argued that he is hyper-aware that there could be cameras in foreign hotel rooms, implying he would never have been so reckless as Steele’s sources claim. “I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me,” he added.

Now, in fired FBI Director James Comey’s new book, Comey mentions Trump’s reaction when he first learned of the allegation, and describes four other instances in which he says Trump complained about the story to him in private.

1) January 6, 2017: After an intelligence briefing at Trump Tower for the president-elect, Comey stayed behind to talk to him one on one about the dossier and the prostitutes claim, which hadn’t yet been made public. Comey wrote in his memo that Trump denied paying for prostitutes and said he was careful about surveillance in foreign hotel rooms.

2) January 11, 2017: Comey writes that during a follow-up call with the president-elect the day after the allegation went public, Trump reiterated the “germaphobe” point. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me,” Trump said, according to Comey. “No way.” (This isn’t documented in his memos.)

3) January 27, 2017: At their one-on-one dinner, Comey says now-President Trump brought up the topic again, to refute it, and said it bothered him if his wife Melania thought there was even a one percent chance it was true. He says Trump also claimed he didn’t even stay overnight in Russia and only went to the Ritz-Carlton to change his clothes (which, per flight records obtained by Bloomberg and his bodyguard’s later testimony, isn’t accurate — he stayed one night there), and mused about asking Trump to investigate the allegation so he could refute it.

4) February 8, 2017: Comey writes that he visited the Oval Office to meet with then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and they said hello to President Trump on the way out. Here again, Comey writes, Trump brought up the “golden showers thing,” mentioned what Melania might think, and (falsely) reiterated that he hadn’t stayed overnight in Russia, and denied “the hookers thing.” Trump also said Putin told him that “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world,” per Comey.

5) March 30, 2017: Comey says Trump told him the golden showers claim isn’t true, asking, “Can you imagine me, hookers?” and stressing again how the claims have caused pain to Melania.

Overall, in the book, Comey implies in some snarky narration that he found Trump’s denials illogical and unconvincing (“I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity”). He also revived the “pee tape” claim by saying that, sure, maybe it did happen:

But if Comey has reasons to grant the “pee tape” claim any validity beyond what we know, he doesn’t provide them.

6) What’s next in this seemingly never-ending saga?

Back in February, the New York Times’s Matthew Rosenberg reported that during a National Security Agency effort to buy back some of its stolen cyberweapons from a “shadowy Russian” known to be tied to cybercriminals, the Russian claimed he had “a video of Mr. Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.”

He showed off a “15-second clip of a video showing a man in a room talking to two women.” But “no audio could be heard on the video, and there was no way to verify if the man was Mr. Trump,” Rosenberg wrote. The NSA paid the guy $100,000 but ended up concluding he didn’t have the cyberweapons they truly wanted and wondering whether the whole thing was just a setup by Russian intelligence.

All that is a good metaphor for the place of the “pee tape” in our discourse.

The claim itself is seemingly unfalsifiable but also extremely unlikely to ever be confirmed. And it could well be a silly distraction from far stronger claims of Russian interference and Trump-Russia ties, or from other issues entirely that should get more attention. It could be total bullshit.

But if it is real ...

Well, it probably isn’t. Come on. Right?

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