The bombshell CNN report that intelligence officials in briefings last week presented top U.S. officials and President-elect Donald Trump with “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump. . . . [including] allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” threatens to derail his presidency before it even gets underway.
The inclusion of such unsubstantiated allegations in the election report, a development first reported Tuesday by CNN, adds a disturbing new dimension to existing concerns about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy.
If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information — known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” — that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House. The claims were presented in a two-page summary attached to the full report, an addendum that also included allegations of ongoing contact between members of Trump’s inner circle and representatives of Moscow.
The alleged details in the report have not been proven, and raw intelligence data can be faulty and indeed entirely inaccurate. Nevertheless, public awareness has three serious, major ramifications.
First, the calls by Democrats and a few Republicans for a select committee add immense pressure to Republican leadership in the House and Senate, which so far has resisted entreaties and left the matter of Russian involvement in our election with the intelligence committees (who often work behind closed doors). Even more troubling for the Trump team, many will now argue that an entirely independent body akin to the 9/11 commission provides the only means of resolving questions that go to the heart of our democracy and the fitness of the president-elect.
Second, pressure is sure to mount — perhaps in the form of legislation — to demand Trump release taxes and divest entirely of his holdings. (His news conference scheduled for Wednesday now threatens to become a feeding frenzy.) Concern that the president-elect has been compromised by a hostile foreign power underscores the abject irresponsibility of the Republican National Committee in declining to force Trump to disclose his taxes before awarding him the nomination. Had they done so at the time, we would know whatever financial ties to Russia Trump has — or he would have refused and backed out.
Third, unless and until Americans are satisfied that their president-elect is truly putting America first and not acting at the behest of a foreign country, every nominee, policy decision and statement will raise questions. Does Trump believe what he says or is he saying what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants him to say? Does Trump want to get along with Russia for his own purposes or for the country’s benefit?
After the most extraordinary election in American history we may be embarking on the most bizarre, frightful presidency in U.S. history. Whether Trump can bulldoze his way through this, blame the media and survive remains to be seen.