It is, at first glance, an unsettling story.
A former high-ranking British officer who is respected in the intelligence community compiles a 35-page dossier that concludes President-elect Donald Trump has been cultivated and compromised by members of Russia’s government.
The allegations include a lurid encounter between Trump and Russian prostitutes, but more troublesome are claims that members of Trump’s orbit have met and exchanged information with representatives of Moscow.
The sources who provided the information are credible enough that intelligence agencies included it in a larger briefing for President Barack Obama and Trump on Russian interference in the election.
But as with many things that are incredible, those claims might not be true. News organizations that received the document have yet to corroborate its contents. Russian officials say the government has no compromising information on the president-elect. At a news conference Wednesday, Trump called the allegations “nonsense” and “a disgrace.”
No one, including Trump’s fiercest critics, should automatically assume the dossier is accurate. In fact, we think it was irresponsible of Buzzfeed News to publish the full 35-page document Tuesday. Other news organizations declined to do so because it contained unsubstantiated information from anonymous sources.
It was legitimate news, however, that intelligence agencies thought enough of at least some of the dossier to offer a synopsis of it to Obama and Trump, as CNN reported earlier Tuesday.
That’s not “fake news,” as Trump alleged Wednesday. It’s important news that affirms that intelligence officials – and not just Trump opponents – have concerns Moscow sought to interfere in U.S. elections with the intention of helping Trump win. It doesn’t help that Trump regularly praises Russia and and President Vladimir Putin, and that the president-elect stubbornly refuses to acknowledge Russia hacked the Democratic Party during the election. (On Wednesday, Trump said “I think it was Russia” but later said that others could have, too.)
Does that mean the president-elect has been compromised? No. But there’s an unmistakeable cloud over his incoming administration. It needs to be addressed.
Trump could do so by releasing his tax returns, which might shed light on financial relationships the president-elect may have had with countries important to U.S. foreign policy.
A better, though also unlikely, possibility: Congress could appoint a select committee or independent prosecutor to investigate all facets of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Doing so isn’t a political witch hunt. It’s a path toward answering questions, perhaps vindicating Trump and tamping down speculation.
That’s no small thing. Intelligence officials say Russia may be attempting to undermine Americans’ confidence in their government. If that’s true, they’re off to an effective, unsettling start.