The story began a week ago, when CNN reported that President Obama and President-Elect Trump had been briefed about allegations of serious connections, both collusion and blackmail, between the Russian government and the Trump election campaign team. Almost immediately afterwords, Buzzfeed News published the dossier in full. Since then, the news media has been engaging in a full-throated debate about the dossier itself and the ethics in its release.
I have read the full report released by Buzzfeed, and the allegations made are quite serious, to say the least. Much has been made on social media of the “honey trap” side of the story, with Moscow allegedly trying to blackmail Donald Trump using videos of him with prostitutes. But that is really a minor focus of the report and the much less troubling side of it. The bulk of the dossier focuses on the Russian government’s attempts to influence the US Presidential election through a sophisticated hacking campaign, a campaign which the American intelligence community has concluded unanimously did in fact occur. Donald Trump himself has since admitted Russian interference in the election. But the dossier in question, released last Tuesday, goes much further with its allegations.
Trump’s “Russian dossier” was reportedly prepared by a former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, initially at the bequest of anti-Trump Republicans and later by anti-Trump Democrats. Most of the dossier’s focus is on the Russian government’s attempts to hurt the election campaign of Democratic-party candidate Hillary Clinton that eventually morphed into a full-fledged attempt to ensure Donald Trump’s victory. The dossier alleges that senior members of Donald Trump’s campaign staff had direct contact with Kremlin officials to share intelligence and discuss strategy. Let this sink in for a moment. If true, this would make Donald Trump and his campaign staff guilty not only of complicity in the hacking of the DNC but also of collusion with a foreign power to tamper with and influence American elections. In my view, if these allegations prove true, this is sufficient reason to bar Donald Trump from holding the office of President and also to try him for treason. If they are true however.
The whole affair is a bit fantastical. It is reminiscent of an episode of The Americans: full of bugged hotel rooms, honey-trap set-ups, secret meetings in Eastern Europe, cyber hacking, money transfers, etc. Its all a little much to believe really. CNN lays out quite nicely the reasons for both why and why not to question the dossier. To sum up: the author, Christopher Steele, is a man highly regarded and respected in the global intelligence community with deep connections in Eastern Europe and Russia in particular and the US intelligence community has taken the dossier seriously enough to brief the President and President-Elect. But, on the other hand, while almost all of the sources quoted are anonymous their alleged access is truly phenomenal. The dossier quotes people apparently party to conversations between the absolute highest echelons of the Russian government, between Putin himself and his staff. It is also important to note that the dossier was not compiled by the intelligence community, American or otherwise, but rather by a well-connected individual. An individual, even a talented and experienced one, is much more vulnerable to deception and misinformation than a governmental agency such as the CIA or FBI.
But this dossier has not appeared in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s strenuously pro-Russian policy and rhetoric. It is not suspicious that Trump desires better relations with Russia. What is suspicious is the degree to which he is willing to overlook Russian transgressions and offenses in his single-minded quest to restore relations. Indeed, it is Trump’s near obsessive desire to rehabilitate Russia as a nation that gives weight to the allegations made. But it is also precisely this that gives me further reason to doubt this dossier. Given Trump’s ardent, and well-documented, pro-Russian stance wouldn’t such a story make for the greatest of conspiracy theories? “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin unite to destroy American Democracy: We Warned You!” It seems almost too perfect a story. However, given the gravity of the claims, and known Russian interference with the election, it should remain beyond the ability of the American people to dismiss this issue out of hand without a thorough investigation by the intelligence community and our public servants. Hopefully this episode will leave the incoming administration more wary in its dealings with the Kremlin, and more clear-eyed about the implications of bringing Russia in from the cold.