President-elect Donald Trump speculated Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies might have leaked details about a classified briefing with him that included unsubstantiated allegations that Russia had collected compromising sexual and financial information about him.
He said any such information was not true: “It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen.”
“I think it’s pretty sad when intelligence reports get leaked out to the press,” Trump said.
His comments marked his latest round of insults thrown at U.S. intelligence agencies, the same agencies he will have to rely on to help him make major national security decisions once he takes the White House next week.
Trump was referring to a dossier that contained unproven information about close coordination between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, including details about Russian hacking into Democratic accounts as well as unsubstantiated claims about unusual sexual activities by Trump, attributed to anonymous sources. The Associated Press has not authenticated any of the claims.
On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey refused to say whether the FBI was investigating any possible ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, citing a policy not to comment on what the FBI might or might not be doing.
There is nothing to suggest the intelligence agencies told news outlets that a summary of the dossier was included in Trump’s classified briefing last week about Russian election meddling. President Obama was also briefed on the dossier last Thursday.
A summary of the allegations was included as an add-on to a classified assessment of Russia’s suspected election-interference efforts. That classified report tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to the hacking of email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Trump acknowledged Wednesday, for the first time, that he believed Russia was responsible for the hacking.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump said. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
Trump condemned what he said was “maybe” leaks by U.S. intelligence agencies.
It would be a “tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that. A tremendous blot, because a thing like that should have never been written, it should never have been had and it should certainly never have been released,” Trump said at a news conference.
He likened the release to Nazi Germany, saying it is “disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information – that turned out to be so false and fake – out.”
The CIA and the office of the director of national intelligence declined to comment. Although they had not been able to verify details in the dossier, the belief in the intelligence community was that it needed to be shared with Trump, given how many media outlets were already aware of the file.
The briefing about the separate dossier was first reported Tuesday by CNN.
Shortly after news reports were published about the dossier, Trump tweeted: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
Before he was even briefed on the intelligence agencies’ findings last week, Trump called the focus on the Russian hacking a political witch hunt, as well.
Similar denunciations came from Moscow. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the dossier as a “complete fabrication and utter nonsense.” He insisted that the Kremlin “does not engage in collecting compromising material.”
Collecting such material – known as kompromat in Russia – is standard operating procedure for the Kremlin.
“Kompromat is the life blood – one of the many life blood tactics of Russian intelligence agents,” said Laura Galante, a Russia expert and director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. “Needless to say, the Russians are not going to say that they have compromising information about Donald Trump.”
The unsubstantiated dossier on Trump, which has been circulating in Washington for months, was compiled by a former Western intelligence operative, identified Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal as Christopher Steele of the London-based company Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. Efforts to reach him or the company for comment were not immediately successful.
The dossier was part of an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client who opposed Trump, and later funded by Democrats, according to Mother Jones, which published an article about the report in October and said the operative had turned over the report to the FBI. The New York Times reported the operative had previously worked for British intelligence.
Steven Hall, a retired chief of Russia operations at the CIA, said it was unlikely that intelligence agencies told Trump about the report as payback for his regular criticism.
“In my 30 years of briefing some pretty senior folks downtown in the national security structure, I’ve never seen politicization like that where you use the threat of some sort of retaliation, or some sort of, ‘things are going to get very difficult for you in the future if you somehow mess with the intelligence community.’ I’ve never seen that,” Hall said.
Hall said senior intelligence officials were likely in a no-win situation.
If they decided not to share the information with Trump, the details still would likely get out, and they would be accused of withholding evidence, he said. “If you do brief it, then you of course put the imprimatur of some sort of believability, some sort of veracity to it.”
Trump’s attacks on the intelligence agencies have been “stinging” said former CIA counsel Jeffrey Smith.
“Most president-elects or presidential candidates are very suspicious to the CIA or hostile to it,” Smith said. “Once they become president and discover that it’s their CIA, the attitude changes.”