Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. released a statement Wednesday night saying he spoke with President-elect Donald Trump regarding the leaked 35-page dossier to express his “profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.” He continued:
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.
President-elect Trump again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people.
Clapper in essence confirmed the original report from CNN that Trump had been made aware of the dossier (“Our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security”). Why Trump’s staff, specifically Kellyanne Conway, would continue to deny that he was briefed on the dossier remains unclear, but it’s indicative of the Trump team’s modus operandi: Deny, misrepresent and then blame the media. Conway should be confronted about her incessant untruths.
Now, a BBC report claims that a joint CIA-FBI task force is investigating allegations that Russian money flowed into the Trump campaign:
Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. It was — allegedly — a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.
It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created.
The taskforce included six agencies or departments of government. Dealing with the domestic, US, side of the inquiry, were the FBI, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Justice. For the foreign and intelligence aspects of the investigation, there were another three agencies: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic spying.
A warrant from the FISA court was reportedly obtained, allowing further investigation into “transfers of money from Russia to the United States, each one, if proved, a felony offense.”
All of this raises several concerns.
First, if a joint force was investigating money flowing to the Trump campaign, FBI Director James Comey’s announcement during the campaign that he was investigating only one candidate, Hillary Clinton, defies explanation. The claim that the FBI does not talk about investigations must apply to both candidates or neither. Comey has some explaining to do. If there is a “but for” event leading to Clinton’s loss, Comey’s selective pronouncements, if not the Russian cyberwarfare itself, certainly qualify. He should resign forthwith since he has lost the confidence of a large segment of the public and Congress.
Second, once Trump becomes president, we find it hard to understand how the FBI and CIA could continue to investigate their boss. The director of the CIA and the director of national intelligence will soon be Trump appointees; the conflict is unresolvable. The leaking of the dossier in which the intelligence community is a suspect cannot be undertaken by the same organizations who may have dumped the uncorroborated allegations into the public square. The situation cries out for an independent commission or prosecutor with subpoena power. Otherwise, the public, the intelligence community and the Trump presidency will never get closure on the issue.
Third, for a man who claims to have no untoward ties to Russia, Trump sure acts suspiciously. As Max Boot writes, Trump “does nothing to dispel suspicions with his hyperbolic attacks and his denials that he has business interests in Russia.” Citing Russian denials only makes Trump seem like a Putin chump, Boot points out.
We agree with Boot and others that Trump should favor an entirely independent commission to get to the bottom of the jumble of allegations and accusations. Trump’s refusal to agree to such an investigation and to release his tax returns will reinforce the perception that Vladimir Putin holds sway over him. Unless Congress wants to spend the next four years on this topic, lawmakers should offload this matter to a 9/11-type commission headed by individuals whose credibility is beyond question.
Trump cannot claim to be blameless for this thicket of intrigue. He chooses to keep his tax records secret. He chose a flock of pro-Russian advisers to assist him during the campaign. He consistently echoed Russian propaganda and refused to criticize Putin. He held up WikiLeaks as a reliable source and referenced its reports again and again in the waning days of the campaign. Trump nevertheless cannot be held solely responsible for the mess we now face. The Republican National Committee never demanded that he reveal his tax returns before getting the nomination. Comey acted in a manner that calls into question the independence and credibility of the FBI. And, as Clapper noted, a succession of leaks only raises the political noise level.
Whoever did what, only an independent body can provide perspective and determine the extent to which Russia has gotten its hooks into the president-elect. Republicans intent on running interference for Trump endanger the country and their own reputations.