NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11: President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news cenference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's...
Spencer Platt

Donald Trump can’t make the Russia scandal go away

Updated
The scandal surrounding Russia’s intervention in the U.S. presidential election has, broadly speaking, come in three phases.

The first broke during the campaign itself. Around the time Donald Trump publicly urged Russia to commit illegal acts of cyber-espionage to help his candidacy, multiple reports came to light suggesting Russian officials were, in fact, trying to boost the Republican. Trump, when he wasn’t praising Putin, dismissed the allegations, and much of the political world focused instead on Hillary Clinton’s email server protocols.

The second phase unfolded soon after Election Day, when 17 U.S. intelligence agencies reached a consensus: Russia did launch an espionage operation; officials working at Putin’s behest did subvert our democracy; and Russia was motivated in part by a desire to help put Trump in the White House.

As recently as a month ago, the president elect rejected the findings as “ridiculous.” Now, however, practically everyone in Trump World accepts the U.S. intelligence consensus.

If we stopped here and went no further, we’d still have one of the most important campaign stories in American history. It’s an almost unimaginable crime: a foreign adversary provided clandestine assistance to a presidential candidate, creating a dynamic in which the next leader of the free world managed to reach the office thanks in part to foreign espionage.

This is exactly what U.S. intelligence agencies, members of Congress from both parties, and even Trump’s own team, now believes. TPM’s Josh Marshall put it this way last week: “[J]ust two weeks before a new president is sworn into office, the country’s intelligence agencies are publicly releasing a report claiming that the United States’ great 20th century rival, Russia, conspired to assist in that new president’s election. Step back and just absorb that. That is simply mind-boggling.”

All of which brings us to the third phase, which broke this week.

It started in earnest with the publication of this much-discussed CNN report.
Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.

The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible. The FBI is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
Trump and his allies have tried to dismiss the report as “fake news,” but at least so far, nothing in that CNN story has been discredited.

In fact, as Rachel noted on the show last night, Trump claimed yesterday that he spoke to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whom the president-elect said “denounced the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated.” As it turns out, Trump was lying – because that’s not what Clapper said. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies have not yet reached a conclusion about the accuracy of the information in the dossier.

NBC News reported yesterday, meanwhile, that Trump was personally briefed on the two-page synopsis last week by FBI Director James Comey, who spoke with the president-elect “one-on-one.”

We also now know the author of the information in the dossier: Christopher Steele, a former British officer with MI6, prepared the materials. This week, the New York Times reported, Steele went “underground,” effectively disappearing from public view.

For his part, Trump, whose claims about the scandal have repeatedly been exposed as brazen falsehoods, went back to Twitter this morning to argue, “It now turns out that the phony allegations against me were put together by my political opponents and a failed spy afraid of being sued. Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans - FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!”

The latest messages prove (a) that Trump’s writing skills appear to be getting worse; (b) he still thinks Americans should accept Russia’s claims at face value; (c) his conflict with U.S. intelligence agencies isn’t going to end anytime soon; and (d) the president-elect seems to think that he can improve his own standing by having his own team release its own report.

This is not a scandal Trump can simply wish away.