he Strange Things We Found in the Trump Kompromat Memo
Photo: A mural in a Moscow pub. Photo by Aleksandr Zemlianichenko/Meduza
UPDATED: Much has been written about a memo passed around intelligence and media circles purporting to contain kompromat about president-elect -- a Russian word that means "compromising material" held to blackmail an enemy or leak to the press to embarrass him.
As we reported, Trump himself has called the entire report "fake news" as part of a "witch hunt" and some of the key figures named have denied the implications in the report.
In its first story on the memo, The Guardian called out the English spelling of the word "Alpha" and the claim that the suburb of Barvikha was "reserved for elites" as tips that the memo was written by people who didn't know facts about Russia and therefore could be fake.
These two points are trivial indeed compared to other strange aspects of the memo; many English speakers would anglicize the word "Alfa" to "Alpha" for the name of the bank; and dachas are indeed reserved in the Russian leadership's system of perks, although oligarchs as well as some ordinary people do live in Barvikha, including those who work at the elite compounds.
The memo has clearly been cobbled together from various different reports, and if it is true that the reports originated in a firm owned by a former British MI6 agent, there are few Briticisms at all in the report, either in spelling or lexicon ("programmes" is on page 4, "organisation" on page 18). So it has been summarized and rewritten, perhaps with mistakes introduced along the way.
What we'd like to point out are some of the very curious claims about how the Russian intelligence system works, and recent facts of political life.
Many of the allegations about Trump have been known for months and were covered in The Interpreter's four-part series for The Daily Beast. Of particular interest were Trump's possible links to figures in Russia, some with ties to the Kremlin or organized crimes, to whom Trump may be indebted in some way.
What this new memo recounts are claims of actual actions taken by individuals already known in the Trump story to blackmail the real estate mogul -- and it is these allegations which will continue to hang over the Trump presidency regardless of his own dismissal or the failure of the press to find "smoking guns."
Even so, we have to point out that certain episodes in this report do not seem consistent with what we know about Russia, and either they are bizarre enough to be true or evidence that it is false in part or in whole.
-- The section that claims that Michael Cohen, a lawyer for Trump, met with a Russian operative says that the Russian is in a "parastate" agency and "under cover," but works for Rossotrudnichestvo. That is a state agency that cultivates emigres and foreigners abroad and *is* a state agency which reports to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It functions like the Soviet Friendship Committee but has even more reach as it also sponsors cultural activities abroad. So it's not very secret and would probably not be used for a covert meeting, although it is used to find agents of influence.
Cohen reportedly met Russian officials, including possibly Russian politician Konstantin Kosachev in August in Prague. The dossier (page 18) claims that Kosachev as a "plausibly deniable" figure not in the executive but the Russian legislature had "facilitated" the contact and by implication, could have attended the meeting.
Cohen denies he was in Prague during the dates indicated, although he does say he went to Italy in July. The drive to Czech republic from whatever town he visited in Italy would be between 650 and 1000+ miles -- not a realistic trip to meet a Russian agent. Cohen also claims he was in New York In September.
As we reported, CNN's Jake Tapper claims that the Michael Cohen in question was not in the Czech Republic, and the dossier references a different Michael Cohen.
Kosachev, former head of the State Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, has issued a statement on his Facebook page denying the claims about him in the report or any involvement in the affair. Kosachev is currently the chair of the Committee on International Relations of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. He served in 2012 as the head of Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian state agency for cooperation with emigres and foreigners.
First, Kosachev notes that he left the position of chair of the State Duma's Foreign Relations Committee five years ago, although he is identified in the report as still holding that title in the Duma. Second, he says he does not know Michael Cohen "with all due respect." And third, he says he has not been to Prague or any other Czech city in more than five years. We found him at a conference in Prague titled "Democracy in the Post-Soviet Space" -- but in 2012. It seems unlikely that if he went to another conference more recently, there would be no press coverage.
-- Carter Page, said now to be a former advisor to Trump and owner of Global Energy Capital, has close ties to Gazprom and allegedly met with high-ranking Russian officials on frequent travels to Russia. But as we reported last year, he denied he met Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin -- and indeed, why would someone as important as Sechin meet with a former advisor to Trump? The issue isn't just the difference in their levels; the issue is the political fall-out that could occur should Sechin's meeting with Page be exposed.
But what's most odd about the claims for that meeting are that Sechin allegedly offered Page/Trump the 19.5% of shares in Rosneft that eventually went to Qatar and Glencore. It just doesn't make sense that Sechin would offer these shares to either a small American energy company or an American real estate mogul who do not have the cash for such a big investment (it sold for more than $11 billion) and who are not even in the oil business. The Russian news service RBC was sued last year by Sechin for reporting that the government warned the British oil company BP, which already owns shares in Rosneft, not to get involved in this deal (so as not to obtain a controlling share), and the shares were frequently rumored to be shopped to "Asians" or proxies for Rosneft/Russia itself. It just doesn't seem plausible that they could ever have been offered to Americans in any form, especially these Americans. And to get Trump on their side, the Russians wouldn't need to force him to spend money he didn't have on an oil company in Russia where he would stick out like a sore thumb.
-- The weirdest part of the memo for Russia-watchers is the notion that Russian presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov was handed this very sensitive dossier of Trump kompromat [compromising material] to manage, and then supposedly overplayed his hand, and he and others suffered the consequences.
Peskov himself dubbed these claims "pulp fiction" today at a press briefing, Gazeta reported.
First, it makes no sense to have the PR voice of the presidential administration handling a dossier of this nature -- he wouldn't have compiled it as part of his job description, and it would be handled by intelligence agencies, either the FSB (Federal Security Service] or SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service]. He might be an end user of parts of such a dossier, but he himself didn't publicize them (unless he did so as part of his office's job telling state media what and what no to write).
It is plausible that Sergei Ivanov, previously Putin's chief of staff, as a trusted former KGB officer and long-time crony of Putin's, might have had this job "outside the usual channels." But the claim Ivanov was "backed by the SVR" then (not the FSB, which would have had to gather the kompromat inside Russia) doesn't make sense -- nor does the strange odyssey of this dossier "from the MFA to Ivanov/SVR to Peskov." All of this is odd; given agency rivalries and chains of command and mandates, it does not make sense. Intelligence just doesn't work that way.
Then there is the claim that Ivanov was removed from his job over this blowback. This is an interesting tidbit because the dismissal of this trusted aide was very sudden, and no one can really explain why he was removed; he himself may really have wanted to leave voluntarily. Ivanov did not fall from favor; Putin made him a special envoy on the environment, and he retains his seat in the National Security Council.
The Trump memo certainly provides an explanation, then, for his sudden departure, but it equally could be cited as evidence that the dossier is fake since the authors don't realize how the Kremlin works. If Putin did not trust his own intelligence agencies to handle such a sensitive matter and wanted personal control over it, he would not likely give the job to Peskov or even Ivanov, but rather he might bring in Viktor Zubkov, his former body guard -- former head of the Federal Protection Service which guards the leaders and the Kremlin grounds, and who is now head of the National Guard.
Perhaps this is a very garbled version of a story that does involve Ivanov in the links of people handling the Trump dossier. As we reported, even after he was fired, Ivanov was sent out to do spin control on the 'Russia wants Trump as president' story, walking it back. That was both evidence that Ivanov was still very much in favor in the Kremlin and that the Kremlin needed to downplay the story. But the wild bungling and overplaying of hands described in the account don't square with the way the hacks and media coverage have been handled. They maintained plausible deniability, and needed only a slight nudge to be effective.
-- The part that has the most attention is the least substantiated. Could it be that someone as important as Trump orders prostitutes for the presidential suite, and they all disappear and are silent after taking bribes? Really? This seems bizarre and meant as a red herring. Trump has always been careful to surround himself with aides and lawyers who keep scandal away. We're to believe that he'd be indiscreet enough in Russia to hire prostitutes?
The most important aspect of this report is not whether it is true or flawed but the use to which it has been put -- notably by the US intelligence community in confronting Trump and trying to get him to believe he could be compromised by the Russians. Obviously, it's easier for the intelligence community to use a thing like this than its own real reports.
Of course, the entire memo could be yet another Russian disinformation operation of its own, as now total chaos has broken out in the media over it.
The report is based on the agents' network of a figure close to British intelligence. That means it is likely available to UK intelligence which cooperates with US intelligence. The US may have its own sources or the same sources, and may have found it convenient to have the information get to Trump and the media this way -- in other words, the copy given to the US intelligence by Senator John McCain may not have been their only copy..
The sources have very high access and that seems surprising, then, that they end up in a report that is shopped around widely like this because, with some digging, any of those involbed could be exposed. Who is that Russian emigre in the Trump camp? Is that Felix Satter or somebody else?
So far, the Russian-language state and independent media have reported on the Trump kompromat memo as an event, summarizing the BuzzFeed article and claiming that none of the allegations are verified. But Russian media has not provided a detailed critique of the allegations raised, such as the claim of Peskov's or Ivanov's involvement, and Ivanov's dismissal and replacement by Anton Vaino, who was portrayed in the memo as "clean" in terms of having no involvement in the Trump campaign. Perhaps that's because the Kremlin is as much of a black box for them as it is for us.
Gazeta.ru has questioned a key element of the memo, that Trump was assigned the job of providing intelligence on what Russian oligarchs do abroad. We found that odd as well, as we were unable to find any actual ties between major oligarchs and Trump, although he became involved with second-tier wealthy Russian businessmen like Arif Agalarov in the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Russia. Gazeta said they didn't think Trump would have anything to contribute that Russia's own networks would not report. They also expressed doubts about the sexual allegations.
To be sure, it is a classic feature of Russian intelligence tradecraft to hook in informants by giving them jobs to do like reporting on something, even if Russian intelligence knows it already. And dangling prostitutes to create kompromat situations is another classic move.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Minding Russia.
-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick