Former FBI director James B. Comey’s memos about his conversations with President Trump leaked Thursday night — shortly after they were sent to Congress by the Justice Department. And the prevailing wisdom is that House Republicans were behind the leak.
But did the leak actually do them and Trump any favors?
It’s tough to see what in the memos was great for Trump, even as he claimed Friday morning that they show there was “no collusion” and “no obstruction.”
In contrast, some read the memos as actually potentially validating the claims in the Steele dossier. In one memo, Comey notes Trump mentioned how Russian President Vladimir Putin had boasted to him about how Russia had, in Comey’s words, “some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” In another, Comey says certain claims in the dossier had been corroborated, even at that early date.
Let’s parse all that.
The “hookers” comment
Here’s what Comey's memo says about this alleged Putin comment to Trump:
The President said ‘the hookers thing’ is nonsense but that Putin had told him “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” He did not say when Putin had told him this and I don’t recall [REDACTED].
The idea that Putin actually said this is easy to believe, because he has even said it publicly. In a January 2017 interview with Bloomberg News, Putin said he doubted Trump met prostitutes in Russia in 2013, as the Steele dossier claims. (A refresher: The dossier’s most salacious claim is that Russia had a tape of Trump watching prostitutes urinate on themselves on a bed and that it could be used as kompromat, or compromising information, against him.) But then Putin also slipped in an aside to Bloomberg that Russian prostitutes “are undoubtedly the best in the world.”
As The Post's Philip Bump notes, it seems at least possible Trump was relaying something he had read and that Comey misunderstood him. But if Trump wasn’t, that means Putin perhaps conspicuously brought up the quality of Russian prostitutes twice — while talking to and about Trump.
The most conspiratorial read on that would be that it was a not-so-subtle suggestion that Putin actually had the tape that the Steele dossier alleges and wanted Trump to know about it. The fact that Putin is a former KGB agent lends credence to the idea that he’d want Trump to think he had something on him — if the tape even exists, which we have no solid evidence of.
Putin bringing this up in the Bloomberg interview could be read as him trying to plant a seed publicly about the possibility of the tape’s existence — a gambit that would certainly fit with Russia’s campaign to stir unrest in the United States. But bringing it up privately with Trump would carry little guarantee that it would even come out publicly. If Putin was indeed trying to be suggestive, doing it one-on-one with Trump would seem more nefarious.
But we don’t know the full context of the Trump-Putin conversation. Did Trump raise the Steele dossier with Putin in that conversation, just as Putin in the Bloomberg interview was responding specifically to a question about the allegation that he has the tape? That might explain why Putin would bring it up, weird as the comment is. Maybe he’s just truly proud of his country’s sex workers.
It’s worth emphasizing that, while Comey has suggested in recent days that it’s “possible” the tape exists, he has also said it’s “unlikely.” And when CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed him on this point Thursday, Comey offered two reasons it’s possible: first, that Trump keeps denying it, and second, that Trump wouldn’t criticize Putin, even privately. Comey didn’t specifically mention Putin’s comments about Russia having the best prostitutes as part of his reasoning.
That portions of the dossier had been corroborated
The second excerpt of the memos some have seized upon is this one, in which Comey in February 2017 recounts talking to Reince Priebus, who was then White House chief of staff. When Priebus inquired, Comey said he told Trump about the dossier because portions of it had already been “corroborated”:
I explained that the analysts from all three agencies agreed it was relevant and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence. ... I explained that the primary source [REDACTED] much of it was consistent with and corroborative of other intelligence, and that the incoming president needed to know the rest of it was out there.
This rebuts Republican allegations that the dossier is a series of baseless claims used as a pretext for spying on Trump campaign aide Carter Page and launching the Russia investigation: “Corroborated,” “corroborative.” The dossier, according to Comey, had been corroborated in part as of early 2017, right around the time it went public.
That isn’t hugely surprising. Other officials have said, anonymously, that portions have been corroborated. And the opposition research firm that commissioned Steele, Fusion GPS, has also said it believed portions of the dossier were corroborated.
But we don’t know what has been corroborated. And just because some parts have been corroborated doesn’t mean the entire document is gospel. The dossier, after all, contains a series of disparate claims based upon disparate sources who may be of varying degrees of reliability. There are also claims in the dossier that aren’t nearly as outlandish as the Russian prostitute claim. Those may be confirmed without the most salacious and damning allegations being true. While Steele was well regarded as an intelligence agent, the dossier did not contain thoroughly vetted and proven claims.
That said, Comey at this early juncture was led to believe the dossier was at least partially legit. And now we have a contemporaneous and public record of that.