MOSCOW — The Kremlin on Wednesday dismissed as “a total fake” allegations that Russian intelligence agencies collected compromising information about President-elect Donald Trump — a denial that was echoed by much of Russia’s establishment.
But when President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman went further — saying the Kremlin “does not engage in compromising material” — it was widely greeted by the rolling of Russian eyes.
Gathering “kompromat,” the Russian word for potentially embarrassing information that can offer leverage, has a long history reaching back to Soviet days.
It was raised to a high standard by the KGB, the predecessor of Russia’s Federal Security Service and the agency in which Putin and many of his closest allies started their careers. One sex tape toppled a prosecutor general on an anti-corruption crusade. Other tapes have targeted opposition politicians. And Russia, said one Federal Security Service colonel, has not lost its taste for kompromat, despite the flat-out denial by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
“Without a doubt, we gather kompromat. . . . In the Kremlin, there’s piles of it, as there are in all the security agencies,” said Gennady Gudkov, also a former legislator who was forced out of parliament for his opposition to Putin. “As a rule, the special services collect information on everyone, like a vacuum, picking up anything and everything.”
This in itself does not confirm the allegations, summarized in a classified report U.S. officials said was delivered to President Obama and Trump last week, that Russian intelligence services have compromising material and information on Trump’s personal life and finances.
But the deep roots of kompromat add another layer to the probes into the credibility of the reports about a Trump dossier.
Trump himself rejected the allegations, first in tweets and then during a news conference in New York. “It’s all fake news,” he told reporters. “It’s phony stuff. It did not happen.”
Russia’s strong denials are directly at odds with the report and were reminiscent of previous Kremlin rebuttals after U.S. intelligence agencies said Russia had a hand in hacking Web accounts of the Democratic Party and top campaign figures for Hillary Clinton. Russia, however, has made no attempt to hide its support for Trump, whom many Russian leaders see as less adversarial than Clinton.
At the news conference, Trump acknowledged for the first time that he thinks Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee. In Washington, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, called the intelligence findings of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election “troubling.” But Tillerson said he has not yet seen the classified information on the alleged compromising material.
Nikolai Kovalyov, a current legislator and former director of the Federal Security Service, said that agents would not have collected material on Trump while he was visiting Moscow in 2013 to help run a Miss Universe pageant.
“Who is interested in gathering compromising material on a man who came here to organize a beauty contest?” Kovalyov said. “I can tell you from my professional experience that Russia does not have such practices.”
Gudkov disagreed. If Trump stayed in a hotel room equipped with surveillance equipment — “a plus room,” Gudkov said spy agencies call them — “there is every reason to believe his actions could have been recorded,” he said.
Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute, said that it would be “inconceivable that Russian intelligence wouldn’t try to gather information on Trump if he came there.”
Among the allegations contained in the report is that surveillance captured Trump in a hotel room with prostitutes. This has not been confirmed.
Before the trip to Russia in 2013 mentioned in the report, Trump said: “I told many people: Be careful, because you don’t want to see yourself on television, cameras all over the place. Not just Russia, all over. Does anyone believe that story? I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way. Believe me.”
Sex tapes, and their use as leverage, have a long history in Russian politics.
In 2010, hidden-camera videos of opposition politicians and journalists having sex or using cocaine in various hotel rooms were leaked online. The targets included opposition politician Ilya Yashin, satirist Viktor Shenderovich and others.
Yashin blamed the Kremlin.
Last year, five months before parliamentary elections, a tape emerged with opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of the RPR Parnas party, having sex with a woman who was not his wife. The video helped lead to a schism in the party from which it did not recover.
“It’s the ABCs of the work of any secret service, to get information which is important for operations, including political ones,” said Alexei Kondaurov, a former lawmaker and major general in the Soviet-era KGB.
Karla Adam contributed to this report from London. Natalya Abbakumova contributed from Moscow.