WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The chiefs of US intelligence agencies last week presented President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
The summary is based on memos generated by political operatives seeking to derail Mr Trump's candidacy. Details of the reports began circulating in the fall and were widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington.
Mr Trump, however, said the reports were fake news and denounced what he called a political witch hunt.
“FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” he tweeted on Tuesday US time (Wednesday Jan 11, Singapore time).
The summary was presented as an annex to the intelligence agencies' report on the Russian hacking of the election, the officials said.
The material was not corroborated, and The New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims. But intelligence agencies considered it so potentially explosive that they decided that Mr Obama, Mr Trump and congressional leaders needed to be told about it and that the agencies were actively investigating it.
Intelligence officials were concerned that the information would leak before they informed Mr Trump of its existence, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the summary is classified and talking about it would be a felony.
The decision of top intelligence officials to give the president, the President-elect and the so-called Gang of Eight — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.
The appendix summarised opposition research memos prepared mainly by a retired British intelligence operative for a Washington political and corporate research firm. The firm was paid for its work first by Mr Trump’s Republican rivals and later by supporters of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. The Times has checked on a number of the details included in the memos but has been unable to substantiate them.
The memos suggest that for many years, the government of President Vladimir Putin of Russia has looked for ways to influence Mr Trump, who has travelled repeatedly to Moscow to investigate real estate deals or to oversee the Miss Universe competition, which he owned for several years. Mr Trump never completed any major deals in Russia, though he discussed them for years.
The former British intelligence officer who gathered the material about Mr Trump is considered a competent and reliable operative with extensive experience in Russia, American officials said. But he passed on what he heard from Russian informants and others, and what they told him has not yet been vetted by American intelligence.
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with Mr Trump in a 2013 visit to a Moscow hotel. The videos were supposedly prepared as “kompromat”, or compromising material, with the possible goal of blackmailing Mr Trump in the future.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed various lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes in order to win influence over the real estate magnate.
The memos describe several purported meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump representatives and Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
The first hint of the FBI investigation came on Tuesday in a Senate hearing in a series of questions from Democrat Senator Ron Wyden to FBI Director James B. Comey.
Mr Wyden, trying to draw Mr Comey out on information he may have heard during a classified briefing, asked whether the FBI had investigated the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. Mr Comey demurred, saying he could not discuss any investigations that may be underway.
Mr Wyden kept pressing, asking Mr Comey to provide a written answer to the question before Mr Trump’s inaugural on Jan 20 because he feared there would be no declassification of the information once Mr Trump took office.
After the hearing, Mr Wyden posted on Twitter: “Director Comey refused to answer my question about whether the FBI has investigated Trump campaign contacts with Russia.”
In fact, the material in the opposition research dossier had been given to the FBI before the election. But the FBI itself apparently struggled to confirm it, according to federal officials familiar with the investigation.