CNN Is Saying Its Russia Dossier Reporting Has Been Confirmed. That’s a Stretch.
On Tuesday, CNN published a story about a document it said had been prepared by U.S. officials and presented to Donald Trump. That document, which CNN did not publish but BuzzFeed later did, describes allegations that Trump's campaign collaborated with Russian intelligence figures who are in possession of "compromising personal and financial information" about the president-elect. Trump responded by denouncing the report as "fake news" at a Wednesday press conference. Then, on Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement about the matter—a statement that CNN staffers and many others are describing as having "confirmed" CNN's Tuesday reporting.
That's not really true. Let's first look at what CNN reported. CNN wrote:
- that Trump had been "presented" at a briefing Friday with a two-page synopsis of a 35-page dossier about Trump-related Russian intelligence operations during the 2016 campaign
- that the dossier was originally prepared by "a former British intelligence operative" whose "past work US intelligence officials consider credible"
- that U.S. intelligence officials presented Trump with the synopsis in order to "demonstrate that Russia had compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties"
- that the synopsis and the dossier it was based on "augmented the evidence that Moscow intended to harm Clinton's candidacy and help Trump's"
- that the dossier was "circulating" in Washington, D.C., last summer but that "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 dossier's] information" in the presentation to Trump
- that the FBI is investigating the allegations in the dossier though it has not confirmed "many essential details" included therein
This all paints a pretty clear picture of U.S. intelligence officials making Donald Trump aware of allegations compiled by a "credible" investigator who has a "vast" and "credible" network of sources—allegations that intelligence officials consider to be "evidence" that Russia intentionally boosted Trump's candidacy. CNN states as a fact that U.S. officials believe the dossier "demonstrate[s] that Russia ... compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties." And it says that the FBI hasn't confirmed "many" details in the dossier, which seems to imply that some of the details in it have been confirmed.
Here's what James Clapper wrote about the synopsis/dossier in his statement about a conversation that he and Trump had on Wednesday:
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
Note that Clapper does not say that he discussed the dossier with Trump on Friday or that Trump was physically given the synopsis at that time to read later. On that note, here's what NBC reported about the matter earlier Wednesday:
President-elect Donald Trump was not told about unverified reports that Russia has compromising information on him during last week's intelligence briefing, according to a senior intelligence official with knowledge of preparations for the briefing.
A summary of the unverified reports was prepared as background material for the briefing, but not discussed during the meeting, the official said ... While multiple officials say the [synopsis] was included in the material prepared for the briefers, the senior official told NBC News that the briefing was oral and no actual documents were left with the Trump team in New York.
In light of this, here's a line in CNN's original report that's worth highlighting:
CNN has confirmed that the synopsis was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump but cannot confirm if it was discussed in his meeting with the intelligence chiefs.
So CNN can't confirm that the synopsis was actually discussed on Friday ... and Clapper didn't say it was discussed on Friday ... and NBC reports that it definitely wasn't discussed on Friday and that Trump didn't take any documents with him after the meeting.
In other words, we have no evidence—from CNN or anyone else—that Trump was actually made aware of the synopsis/dossier during the Friday meeting. Trump is extremely unreliable, but at his Wednesday press conference he too said the subject was not discussed on Friday. (Update, Thursday, 7:15 p.m.: Citing "sources," CNN is now reporting that FBI director James Comey told Trump about the two-page synopsis in a "one-on-one" conversation last Friday.) Nor does any published report indicate that any of the details in the dossier have actually been verified by U.S. intelligence or any media outlet. In this light, CNN's headline—"Intel Chiefs Presented Trump With Claims of Russian Efforts to Compromise Him"—and its assertion that "officials" believe the dossier "augment[s]" the "evidence" that Russia intended to boost Trump's campaign is on shaky ground. At this point, it seems like "Intel Chiefs Carried Memo About Uncorroborated Blackmail Rumors into Meeting With Trump, but Didn't Mention It to Him" might have been a more accurate headline.
This is, as they say, a fluid situation. It's possible that Clapper is not telling the full story and that NBC's intelligence sources are just trying to downplay their own role in creating a media shitstorm about a document that alleges that the next president of the United States paid prostitutes to pee on each other. It's also possible that some of the allegations in the dossier will be confirmed—other outlets have identified the dossier's author as the proprietor of a legitimate private firm, reported that the FBI took the possibility of Russia-Trump collaboration seriously enough to apply for surveillance warrants, and even asserted, though only via a secondhand source, that some CIA agents believe compromising Trump material "of a sexual nature" does exist. It's too early to say CNN was wrong. But it's also too early for them to take a victory lap.
Today in Conservative Media: No Fans of Cory Booker
Conservative media continued to denounce the provenance, content, and publication of a document alleging that President-elect Trump collaborated with the Russian government during his campaign because he was being blackmailed.
Far-Right French Politician Marine Le Pen Is at Trump Tower
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump's combination of extremist national security paranoia and borderline-leftist economic populism was often compared to that of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front. Top Trump adviser Steve Bannon is also known to admire Le Pen and other European nationalist (read: white) leaders. Thursday, LePen showed up at Trump Tower. From the press's pool report:
Marine Le Pen was spotted with three men having coffee in the basement of Trump Tower around 11 a.m.
Pool asked whether she was here to meet with PEOTUS and she declined to answer. Asked if she was here in a professional or personal capacity and she declined to answer. Asked whether she would come speak to the pool later and one of her associates said "OK."
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer says, however, that Le Pen is not meeting with Trump "or anyone else from the transition team," in CNN's words. A subsequent pool report has identified one of the men with Le Pen as her partner and another as George Lombardi of a self-described "grassroots" group called Citizens for Trump that was not formally affiliated with the Trump campaign. So maybe they just wanted to get some grub and talk some Trump and they figured—hey, why not Trump Tower? In the basement?
Le Pen, who's made her party more palatable by marginalizing its egregiously anti-Semitic founder—who happens to be her father—is running for France's presidency. The first round of the election is in April; she's currently leading polls but is considered unlikely to win the subsequent two-way runoff election in May after the supporters of candidates defeated in the first round consolidate around her opponent. She's also currently involved in a controversy for having once said the sight of Muslims praying in French streets reminded her of the Nazi occupation.
Justice Department Announces Plan for Federal Police Reform in Baltimore
In one of her final acts as attorney general, Loretta Lynch announced Thursday that the Department of Justice has reached an agreement with Baltimore officials that would mandate extensive reforms to the city’s police department under the supervision of a federal monitor. The 227-page agreement can be read here, via the Baltimore Sun.
In a press conference, Lynch joined Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh in unveiling the agreement, which arrives a little less than two years after the death of Freddie Gray, the black 25-year-old who sustained fatal injuries in the back of a police transport van. It also arrives five months after the release of a searing report by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division on unconstitutional and racially biased policing practices—including use of force—in Baltimore.
“The purpose of this Agreement is to ensure that the City and BPD protect individuals’ statutory and constitutional rights, treat individuals with dignity and respect, and promote public safety in a manner that is fiscally responsible and responsive to community priorities,” the introduction to the proposed agreement says. Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in her remarks that under the consent decree, the Baltimore Police Department will:
- Ensure that officers conduct stops, searches, and arrests in a manner that complies with the law and promotes public safety.
- Ensure that officers use appropriate de-escalation techniques and attempt to resolve incidents without force when possible; and use force in a manner that is proportional to the threat presented.
- Transport detainees in a manner that keeps them safe.
- Ensure that officers investigate sexual assault thoroughly and without gender bias.
- Dispatch officers who are properly trained in interacting with people in crisis or with behavioral health disabilities when a police response is appropriate.
- Ensure that allegations of officer misconduct are fully, fairly and efficiently investigated; and ensure that the disciplinary system is fair, consistent and provides due process.
If those promises strike you as—to quote the old Chris Rock bit—"some shit they just supposed to do," well, perhaps it would be worth revisiting the findings of the DOJ's report on Baltimore. Among them: "many instances in which officers strip search individuals without legal justification," "overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions, and lead to unnecessary force," and "BPD officers [using] force against members of the public who are engaging in protected speech.” So, there's a ways to go.
“Through this agreement we are moving forward together to work to heal tension and the relationship between BPD and the community," said Lynch, before cautioning that change will not come overnight. Indeed, the road to implementation will be long. From the Sun:
Once the consent decree is signed by both sides, it will be filed jointly in U.S. District Court as a proposed settlement within a Justice Department lawsuit related to the summer findings report. A federal judge overseeing the case will then assess the proposal to determine if it is fair, reasonable and adequately serves the public good, experts said. It's unclear how long that will take.
The judge could approve the agreement through a written order, experts said, or schedule a hearing to gather input from other stakeholders, such as community groups or the local police union. Outside groups could potentially file motions to intervene in the case to register objections.
Once approved by the court, the agreement is expected to take years to implement, all under the oversight of the court and a federal monitor paid by the city.
It’s not clear how the consent decree would be affected by the incoming Trump administration’s opposition to imposing federal oversight on local police departments. During the confirmation hearing of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, Trump’s nominee for attorney general said he didn’t think it was fair that entire police departments get sued by the Justice Department for the actions of a few bad officers. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that,” Sessions said.
(The Department of Justice has entered into consent decrees with about 20 cities nationwide in the wake of investigations into police practices.)
At the press conference Thursday, Lynch gave assurances that the handover of power in the White House would not disrupt the process. The consent decree, she said, “will live on past this administration, because it really is for the city of Baltimore, and we know that Baltimore will pick it up and carry it forward.” Asked by a reporter whether the new attorney general would have the power to undo key aspects of the consent decree, Lynch was unequivocal: “It is court-enforceable, there will be an independent monitor. … It will live on as a binding agreement between the city and the Department of Justice.”
Could Marco Rubio Actually Bring Down Rex Tillerson’s Nomination?
As we enter the third day of hearings for Donald Trump’s nominees, Rex Tillerson appears to face the toughest confirmation fight of all of them. After a day of questioning Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio wouldn’t commit to voting for Tillerson, saying he was “prepared to do what’s right” even if fellow Republicans vote for the nominee for secretary of state.
Rubio had pushed Tillerson throughout the hearing to condemn human rights abuses in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, which the nominee stubbornly refused to do, insisting that he would wait until he had access to more information. He also pointedly asked Tillerson if Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. (Tillerson answered, “I would not use that term.”)
Tillerson’s long-standing ties to Russia as Exxon Mobil CEO were controversial even before this week’s round of Trump/Russia accusations. In his testimony, Tillerson did condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea, called the country an “unfriendly adversary,” and said “we’re not likely ever to be friends” (a strange statement from a man who’s literally received Russia’s “order of friendship”). But it evidently wasn’t enough to convince Rubio.
Republicans only have a one-vote majority on the foreign-relations committee, so if Rubio and all 10 democrats vote against Tillerson, it could stall his nomination. The Senate can then bypass the panel and bring his nomination to the full chamber for a vote, where he would need only a simple majority. There, his nomination would be likely, but not guaranteed. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says he’s also still undecided. Blocking Tillerson would still require one more Republican (John McCain?) and all the Democrats to reject his nomination. As my colleague Josh Voorhees wrote earlier this week, that’s only happened nine times in the history of the Senate, most recently in 1989.
We’re in the Upside Down: Confirmation Hearings Live Blog, Day 3
Here we go again. It's Day 3 for confirmation hearings for the Trump administration's nominees. James Mattis, nominee for defense secretary; Mike Pompeo, nominee for CIA director; and Ben Carson, nominee for housing and urban development secretary, will all be appearing Thursday. Follow along with Slate's writers.
Alabama Congressman Says Criticism of Jeff Sessions’ Record Is Result of “War on Whites”
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions will surely sail through the final vote-tallying hurdle of his confirmation process and be the next attorney general of the United States, despite a reported history of racially insensitive comments. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed back against Sessions’ whitewashing of his questionable racial record in public life that raised significant enough concerns to disqualify him from a federal judgeship three decades ago. The pushback on Sessions seems like a legitimate debate to have in the United States Senate given the nature and seriousness of the office. But Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks sees something else secretly lurking within the debate over what constitutes an unacceptable level of racism to hold public office—racism. As in: Calling Republican racism racist is, in itself, racist.
In a clip dug up by CNN, the Republican congressman explained his view to the Alabama radio show The Morning Show With Toni & Gary:
It's really about political power and racial division and what I've referred to on occasion as the 'war on whites.' They are trying to motivate the African-American vote to vote-bloc for Democrats by using every 'Republican is a racist' tool that they can envision. Even if they have to lie about it.
If you think Brooks’ “war on whites” rhetoric lacks basic self-awareness, give a listen to the first 30 or so seconds of the clip posted by CNN where the hosts Southern white-splain to the NAACP that Sessions is, in fact, a champion of civil rights.
Head of Government Ethics Group Calls Trump’s Plan to Resolve Conflicts of Interest “Meaningless”
Donald Trump’s so-called plan to resolve the tangled web of conflicts of interest that are on course to cling to his presidency from Day 1 isn’t really much of a plan at all. In his press conference Wednesday, Trump and his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, dropped many ethical sounding phrases, like: “blind trust” and “isolating himself” and “donate all profits from foreign government payments.” On Wednesday, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, who has publicly scolded the Trump team’s weak sauce on ethics, had another word for the president-elect’s well choreographed plan: “meaningless.”
"We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit," Walter Shaub, head of the nonpartisan ethics body, said at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday. "That’s why I was glad in November when the president-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, 'in no way have a conflict of interest' with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal.”
Here's more from Taub on Trump's conflict of interest concerns:
[T]he plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met… It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close… His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un- know” that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all. …
So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts... I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make. It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.
Trump Promised to Do Five Things to Separate Himself From His Business. Here’s a Glaring Problem With Each.
At long last, Donald Trump on Wednesday unveiled his plan to separate himself from his business interests while president, something he previously promised would be oh-so simple to do at the same time he was finding reasons to delay taking any clear action on the matter. Based on what Trump shared Wednesday, the plan wasn’t worth the wait.
Standing on stage at Trump Tower, a building he owns, and joined by his adult children, two of whom he says will run the family business in his stead, the next president of the United States let his lawyer do most of the talking for him. For roughly 15 minutes, Sheri Dillon described a plan that she promised would “completely isolate” Trump from the management of his family business. But it won’t.
Even if we assume everyone involved will follow the plan Dillon laid out to the letter—a rather large assumption when it comes to Trump—the steps she described came nowhere close to addressing the very real concerns raised by good government types and ethics watchdogs, many of whom wasted no time making their frustrations clear following the press conference. “His elaborate-looking scheme constitutes at best a Potemkin trust, to coin a semi-Russian phrase,” Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe told Slate. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption,” Norm Eisen, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for the Obama White House, told the Atlantic. “Donald Trump’s announcement today is a classic bait and switch,” added David Donnelly, head of the money-in-politics watchdog Every Voice.
My colleagues Jim Newell and Jamelle Bouie have offered their own unflattering assessments of Trump’s plan, but the specifics are worth a closer look. Trump’s plan can be broken down into five separate parts. Let’s take them in order.
Trump will pass control of his business to his sons.
The promise: Trump will turn over management of the Trump Organization to his two sons Donald Jr. and Eric and a longtime company executive, Allen Weisselberg. Trump’s daughter Ivanka will likewise have no further involvement in the company now that she’s moving to Washington, D.C., with her husband, Jared Kushner, who will serve as a senior adviser to the president.
The problem: Trump will still have an ownership stake in the company, and therefore has a clear financial interest in its success. Nothing that Trump’s legal team described Wednesday will change that. Furthermore, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to imagine a firewall between Trump and his two adult sons, both of whom served as high-profile political surrogates during the campaign and are often seen by their father’s side. If we were to assume a firewall moving forward, that still wouldn’t change the past, during which both Eric and Donald Jr. played prominent—and official—roles in their father’s presidential transition. And even if we believe that Trump and his sons—and Ivanka and Jared—are willing and able to live through the next four or eight years without talking politics or business, that can’t stop other actors—be they domestic investors or foreign leaders—from trying to curry favor with Eric or Donald Jr. as a way to get in the good graces of the president, or to simply create the appearance that they have.
The Trump Organization will hire watchdogs.
The promise: The Trump Organization will employ an ethics adviser who will need to sign off on any actions that raise potential conflicts of interest. Additionally, it will also hire a chief compliance counsel, who will be responsible for ensuring that the company does not take any action “that could be perceived as exploiting the Office of the Presidency.”
The problem: Dillon suggested that the adviser will be a “recognized expert in the field of government experts,” but made no mention of how, exactly, that person would be selected. It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that Trump Organization execs will have a say in who gets that job, as well as who fills the role as chief compliance counsel at their company. And unless these hires are given set terms, either of these Trump employees could theoretically be fired if their oversight proves too costly to the Trump Organization. Many of the most recognizable experts in the field of government ethics, meanwhile, have called on Trump to fully divest himself from his business and place his assets in a blind trust, which serves as a reminder that Trump is not one to follow advice he does not like.
No new foreign deals.
The promise: The Trump Organization will engage in no “new foreign deals” while Trump is president. The company will, however, still be free to engage in any new domestic deals that survive what Dillon promised would be a “vigorous vetting process.”
The problem: New is the key word when it comes to foreign deals. The Trump Organization is believed to already being doing business in about 20 countries, and it appears many of those deals will continue. Trump’s foreign business partners now have an incentive to play nice or risk the direct or indirect wrath of the Trump administration. And it’s unclear if a “new” deal with a current partner would be considered “new” at all. Meanwhile, domestic companies and potential investors will know that they are getting involved with a company that has direct ties to the White House, something they will be free to trumpet publicly. The fact Trump has made it clear he is eager to single out corporations for public praise or scolding compounds these concerns. Meanwhile, without more details, the promised vigorous vetting process amounts to little more than trust us.
Trump won’t look at detailed Trump Org financial reports.
The promise: Trump will no longer have access to detailed financial reports concerning his family’s individual business interests that include separate business-by-business accounting. Instead, he’ll receive broad information reflecting the company’s profits and losses as a whole.
The problem: Dillon suggested this move would “reinforce the wall” between Trump and the Trump Organization, but that wall will still have plenty of windows. The president will still know which companies are parts of the Trump family empire (and how could he forget when so many specifically feature his own name?). He’ll be able to continue to track their fortunes via the media, allowing him to weigh in indirectly when he wants, as he managed to do shortly after the election during a call with a British political leader by bringing up the issue of wind farms he believes will ruin the views of one of his Scottish golf courses.
Hotel profits from foreign governments will go straight to the Treasury.
The promise: The company will donate “all profits” from any money paid to his hotels by foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
The problem: Dillon described this move as one taken out of an abundance of caution to avoid complaints about Trump violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars elected officials from receiving payment from foreign governments. It’s a classic Trumpian flourish—he loves, after all, to use other people’s money to play the part of benevolent billionaire without being one—but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. His company still stands to gain when foreign governments hold lavish affairs at his hotels. More importantly, the hotel fees are only a drop in the bucket of the money Trump receives from foreign governments and the companies they control. The far bigger problem is the millions of dollars he receives in things like rent from state-controlled companies, such as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, which is set to renegotiate its lease agreement at Trump Tower during Trump’s first term. As Tribe put it to Slate, “Trump remains a walking, tweeting violation of the Emoluments Clause from the moment he takes office.”
And those are just the problems that arose from the specific parts of the Trump Organization the newly announced plan addressed. There are myriad other concerns that went unmentioned, such as the millions of dollars of debt from Trump’s businesses and other properties that are reportedly held by more than 150 different financial institutions, or the fact that it appears Trump could violate the government lease on his new Washington, D.C, hotel as soon as he’s sworn in.
After her 15-minute spiel, Dillon took no questions from the assembled media, who later failed to press the president-elect on any of the specifics when they had the chance, even as he gestured to the stacks of manila folders—purportedly full of legal documents related to his company—strategically positioned behind the podium as evidence of how serious he is about separating himself from the business empire that bears his name. Trump, however, couldn’t help himself in his closing remarks, which made it painfully obvious that he won’t forget about his family’s fortune while he is in the White House.
“I hope at the end of eight years I'll come back and say, ‘Oh, you did a good job,’ ” Trump said in reference to his sons and business successors. “Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I'll say, ‘You're fired.’ ” Those are hardly the words of a man with no say in how his family business will be run.
Ex-Wife of Trump Cabinet Nominee Appeared on Oprah to Accuse Him of Physical Abuse
Politico reports on an unusual aspect of the domestic violence allegations against Trump labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, the Carl's Jr. CEO who was accused of abuse by his now-ex-wife in the late '80s:
The ex-wife of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, appeared in disguise on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as a victim of domestic violence, after having accused him multiple times of physically assaulting her in the 1980s.
Footage of the episode has apparently not yet been located, but a spokesman for Puzder and his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, confirmed that Fierstein's appearance on the show took place.
The story of the accusations is somewhat convoluted, as Fierstein now says that she invented the two alleged incidents of physical abuse in question, which were said to have taken place in 1985 and 1986, after "impulsively" filing for divorce and being "counseled then to file an allegation of abuse." But reporting from the time indicates that police responded to the couple's home during the 1986 incident, which took place in May, before Fierstein filed for divorce. Court documents posted by Politico also indicate that Fierstein formally filed a claim of abuse before filing for divorce.
Puzder's confirmation hearing is expected to be held in February.