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Bombshell CNN report: Russia might have dirt on Trump

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, CNN dropped an absolute bombshell of a story — the heads of America’s top intelligence agencies showed President-elect Donald Trump evidence that the Russian government may have “compromising personal and financial” information on him and that his campaign spoke directly with Kremlin intermediaries.

“The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible,” write CNN’s Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper, and Carl Bernstein (yes, that Carl Bernstein). After CNN’s report, BuzzFeed published the British officer’s full dossier, which you can read here.

This dossier, per CNN, has been around for some time. FBI Director James Comey was apparently aware of it when he announced that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey would have then announced an investigation into Clinton, which turned out to be nothingburger but profoundly affected the election, while sitting on far more significant allegations about her opponent.

But the allegations were only recently deemed credible — not proven, merely worth investigating — so are only recently getting top levels of scrutiny.

“Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer,” the CNN reporters explain. “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.”

The idea that Russian intelligence might be able to blackmail the next US president is almost too staggering to think through fully. But one angle that immediately raised eyebrows is a very simple one — what could the Russians possibly have on Trump that hasn’t already been made public? My colleague Matt Yglesias put this skepticism well in a tweet:

Matt’s point is a good one. But Trump’s history does suggest that there are some truly damaging things the Russians could have on him — things that, if they did come out, would embarrass him even further. These are four hypothetical examples, but they’re all based on public reporting:

  1. Trump is not as rich as he says: Trump has repeatedly demonstrated extreme sensitivity over his net worth. In 2005, he sued journalist Tim O’Brien for claiming that he was “merely” worth between $150 million and $250 million. (During a deposition for the case, which he ultimately lost, Trump famously said he estimates his net worth based on his “feelings” at a given moment.) Before Trump’s 2011 Comedy Central Roast, his team reportedly laid out a list of acceptable and unacceptable topics to the comedians. Wanting to have sex with his daughter was in bounds, but jokes about his net worth being lower than he said weren’t. And then, of course, there’s the matter of him not releasing his tax returns like every other presidential candidate in history. If Russians have those tax returns, or a similar financial document, the potential release would be devastating for him.
  2. Trump’s campaign directly coordinated with the Russian government: This, as I mentioned earlier, is a logical reading of an actual allegation in the memo. “The two-page synopsis also included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” the CNN reporters write. That doesn’t clarify whether Trump’s team did it wittingly — or whether the Russians were Putin aides, hackers, oligarchs not officially in the government, or some combination — but either way, that kind of revelation would be damning for Trump’s legitimacy.
  3. Sex tape: There is a persistent rumor in Washington intelligence circles that Russian intelligence “filmed Trump in an orgy while in Russia,” as one writer put it. These rumors get very lurid — we’re talking illegal sex stuff lurid. But they’ve been impossible to track down or verify and thus report in any meaningful sense. Expect to see a lot more speculation along these lines now that the CNN report is out.
  4. Trump’s business holdings in Russia are way more extensive than we think: No one actually knows how much money Trump’s family makes from Russia. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets." If it’s the case that Russian oligarchs or Russian government officials are major income sources for Trump, or that they secretly own large shares of his various companies, then that would be a concrete lever the Kremlin could hold over his head.

It’s also something Russia experts, including some who recently served in the government, have been openly worrying about for months. As my colleague Yochi Dreazen has written, Evelyn Farkas, formerly a top Pentagon official on Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, used an essay for Politico to explicitly suggest that the next inhabitant of the Oval Office may do Putin’s bidding because he owes the Russian leader and his allies money:

We know, per Donald Trump Jr., that Russia makes up a significant amount of the family business. What we don’t know is how much Russian money is involved, and what Russian money. How did Trump get out of debt? To whom does he owe money? Who provides the collateral for his loans? Is he beholden to Russian oligarchs and banks who are under the thumb of the Kremlin and Russian security services?

To be crystal clear: I have no reason to believe any of these theories are correct. We don’t even know if the British intelligence officer’s report, the one the intel community is currently tracking down, is accurate.

But the fact that we even have to talk about these things shows just how much Donald Trump has deformed American politics — and the notion of the presidency itself — before he even moves into the White House.

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