A set of memos alleging disturbing ties between President-elect Donald Trump and Russian officials has set off yet another media firestorm concerning Russia’s putative role in the 2016 presidential election. Many people have had copies of the memos for some time, but the documents were published online by BuzzFeed only after CNN reported that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and President Obama on the allegations contained therein.
The content of the memos, their sourcing to anonymous or non-existent witnesses, and obvious political taint make this story highly suspect. Here are several reasons why.
First, the public doesn’t even know who the author of the memos is or if he or she is truly an honest broker of information. And many of the underlying sources cited in the memos are unnamed. Therefore, they can’t be questioned about their supposed testimony.
According to CNN, the memos were “compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible.”
So, anonymous “US intelligence officials” have claimed than an unnamed “former British intelligence operative” is “credible”—which means next to nothing.
Even if this person was “credible” in the past, it doesn’t mean that he or she is “credible” on this issue. BuzzFeed candidly reported that the memos were “prepared for political opponents of Trump,” meaning that there is an obvious political motivation in play here.
Second, while the ultimate source of the memos may or may not be “credible,” the allegations contained in the memos have not been substantiated or verified. Indeed, CNN makes it clear that the FBI is “is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations…but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.”
Which raises an important question: If the allegations haven’t been confirmed, then why were they included in briefings given to both Trump and Obama? Did the briefers simply note that these allegations were swirling around, or did they give any weight to them? (NBC News reports that the memos were included in briefing materials, but not actually briefed to Trump, as an example of unvetted “disinformation.”)
What makes this even more curious is that some of the allegations are so specific that the FBI should be able to substantiate, or disprove, the basic fact pattern pretty quickly.
For instance, the author of the memos claims that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, was at the center of a Russian conspiracy. Cohen supposedly met with “Kremlin representatives” in Prague. However, the memo’s author isn’t even clear on when this putative meeting took place. It was in either August or September of 2016. This is curious. If the former British spook’s sources were really that good, then they should be able to nail down a fundamental fact like this.
On his Twitter feed, Cohen immediately denied ever having visited Prague, posting a picture of his passport. And CNN subsequently reported that it was a different Michael Cohen who visited Prague, not Trump’s lawyer.
If Trump’s lawyer didn’t visit Prague to meet the Russians, and right now there is no good reason to believe he did, then the memos are not very “credible” at all.
Again, this is pretty basic stuff.
Third, there are some glaring inconsistencies in the memos. One memo (see p. 8 of the pdf published by BuzzFeed) addresses Trump’s “claimed minimal investment profile in Russia” and cites an anonymous, “separate source with direct knowledge” as claiming that “this had not been for want of trying.” The memo’s author continues: “Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow but in the end Trump had had to settle for the use of extensive sexual services there from local prostitutes rather than business success.”
But this is plainly contradicted on the very first page of the memos, which reads:
“So far Trump has declined various sweetener real estate business deals offered him in Russia in order to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him.”
Therefore, we have two versions of the story within just several pages of each other. In one version, President-elect Trump was trying very hard to secure favorable real estate transactions in Russia, but supposedly had to settle for salacious services. In the other version, Trump turned down “various sweetener real estate business deals.” The inconsistency here is quite obvious. If Trump had been offered sweetheart business deals, then he wouldn’t have had “to settle” for something more carnal.
Also, the specific sex act alleged is the type of thing that an adolescent would dream up about his or her young rivals. The reader can inspect the story for himself or herself, but it all just seems too specific and graphic. Moreover, the story is specifically aimed at President Obama, as the alleged act supposedly occurred in a bed where he and his wife had slept. (And, of course, there are no named sources cited in the memos to back up this account.)
Then, in another memo dated Sept. 14, 2016, the author added what effectively serves as an out—just in case anyone wants concrete evidence for his or her blockbuster allegations.
The memo reads: “Two knowledgeable St. Petersburg sources claim Republican candidate TRUMP has paid bribes and engaged in sexual activities there but key witnesses silenced and evidence hard to obtain.”
In other words, don’t expect any firm evidence to substantiate these claims.
The memo also includes these lines: “The local services industry source reported that TRUMP had participated in sex parties in the city too, but that all direct witnesses to this recently had been ‘silenced’ i.e. bribed or coerced to disappear.”
Vladimir Putin is an expert in disappearing witnesses to his own crimes and nefarious activities. But this passage is convenient for the memos’ author: It provides an explanation for why he or she cannot cite any “direct witnesses.” Note that it means the information in the memos on this count is necessarily secondhand, at best, from the author’s perspective.
None of this should be taken as an apologia for Putin’s Russia. The American public should take allegations of Russian meddling very seriously. And there is plenty of sound, publicly available information on Putin’s aggressive strategies.
But dubious memos based on anonymous sources and that have such obvious problems do not help the public discourse.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard