How credible are reports that Russia has compromising information about Trump?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening. We are having some guests join me here at the "NewsHour" anchor desk in the coming weeks. Tonight, it's Steve Inskeep, who many of you recognize from NPR's "Morning Edition." Welcome, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP: I'm delighted to be here. It's an honor. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're so glad to have you.

And we are devoting much of tonight's program to our lead story, and that is the Donald Trump news conference today.

It came amid a swirl of stories about the president-elect and Russia.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: It's all fake news. It's phony stuff. It didn't happen. And it was gotten by opponents of ours.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At his first news conference since the election, Donald Trump flatly denied the Russians have any compromising information on him.

DONALD TRUMP: But it should never have been released, but I read what was released. And I think it's a disgrace. I think it's an absolute disgrace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bombshell burst Tuesday evening, when CNN reported the president-elect and President Obama were briefed on the matter last week. The report included unsubstantiated claims that Russian intelligence compiled a dossier on Mr. Trump during visits to Moscow.

The Web site BuzzFeed then published a 35-page cache of memos from the alleged dossier, including a claim of sexual activity caught on a Moscow hotel room surveillance camera. The New York Times and other major news organizations said they had been aware of the information for months, but could not verify the claims.

Today, Mr. Trump insisted he wouldn't put himself in such a position.

DONALD TRUMP: I told many people, be careful, because you don't want to see yourself on television. There are cameras all over the place, and, again, not just Russia, all over.

Does anyone really believe that story? I'm also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From there, the president-elect lit into the news media again. He condemned BuzzFeed.

DONALD TRUMP: It's a failing pile of garbage writing it. I think they're going to suffer the consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he accused CNN of being fake news, and brushed off persistent attempts by its correspondent to ask a question.

Later, CNN's parent company, Time Warner, defended its reporting, and BuzzFeed said it published what it called a newsworthy document.

As for the leak itself:

DONALD TRUMP: I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it's a disgrace, and I say that. And that's something that Nazi Germany would have done, and did do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Russian hacking more broadly, the president-elect suggested an upside to the probing of Democratic Party computers and e-mails.

DONALD TRUMP: The hacking is bad and it shouldn't be done. But look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hacking, that Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn't report it? That's a horrible thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Likewise, he acknowledged the intelligence verdict that President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking, but he didn't leave it there.

DONALD TRUMP: I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And looking ahead, Mr. Trump suggested the hacking will not necessarily hinder future cooperation with Putin.

DONALD TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability. Now, Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I'm leading it than when other people have led it. You will see that. Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn't have done it. I don't believe he will be doing it more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were also questions about the Trump Organization's business ties to Russia, and he denied there are any.

DONALD TRUMP: We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to. I just don't want to, because I think that would be a conflict. So I have no loans, no dealings and no current pending deals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Trump has not released tax returns to verify his claims, and he said again he won't do so until a federal audit is finished.

He also declined to say whether his associates or campaign staff had contact with Russian officials during the campaign. An ABC reporter tweeted later that the president-elect denied any such contact after the news conference ended.

We take a closer look at Russia, the president-elect, and these latest revelations with former attorney at the National Security Agency Susan Hennessey. She is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and is managing editor for the Web site Lawfare about the intersection of the law and national security. And John Sipher, he served almost 30 years at the CIA, both in the agency's clandestine service and executive ranks. He was stationed in Moscow in the 1990s and he ran the CIA's Russia program for three years. He's now at CrossLead, a consulting firm.

And welcome to both of you.

So let's start, Susan Hennessey, but I just want to ask both of you in brief, what do you make of this report?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, Former NSA Lawyer: Right.

So, for the moment, the real story is the allegations themselves are unverified. They're obviously quite salacious in nature. The real story is that the intelligence community thought it was appropriate to brief the president of the United States and the president-elect.

That means that serious people are taking this seriously. That's different than saying that the intelligence community believes the allegations or has substantiated them. But this is a matter that is not just simply a matter of fake news or something that we should disregard.

It clearly passes some degree of preliminary credibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Sipher, your take?

JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Officer: I think the question is, is this real?

And there are things on the positive side and the negative side on that. On the positive side, for those of us who have lived and worked and worked in Russia and against the Russians, it does feel right. It does feel like the kind of thing that Russians do. A lot of those details fit.

Also, I think, the author has some credibility, which is on the positive side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the former British intelligence officer.

JOHN SIPHER: That's right. Yes.

On the negative side, it really is hard to make a distinction if we don't know who those sources are. He talks about his sources providing various information. In the CIA, before we would put out a report like that, an intelligence report, there could be, you know, hundreds of pages of information on that person's access, on their suitability, on their personality.

We don't have that. And, secondly, the fact that a lot of this reporting is the presidential administration in Russia and the Kremlin is a little bit worrying, because, I mean, that's essentially a hard nut to crack. And U.S. intelligence agencies have been trying to do that for years, and the fact that he has this much data about them does put it into question a little bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Hennessey, let's talk about your organization, Lawfare.

You had a copy of this, what, several weeks ago. And you started looking into it, decided not to put it out, but you did look into it. How did you go about figuring out or trying to figure out what's real and what isn't here?

SUSAN HENNESSEY: Right.

So, the document was shared with us to — so that we could provide some professional input as to whether or not it was credible. As we were satisfied that the relevant government entities were aware of the documents, and then like everybody else, we attempted to talk to people in various communities to see whether or not the allegations seemed credible to them.

I think the point that we're at now, it's really not about our organization or anyone else verifying the specific facts. The FBI is conducting an investigation. We will expect — there are very specific allegations in this document. Those allegations can either be proven true or proven false.

And so we should expect some answers that provide some additional clarity. One important note is just because a single fact in the document is true, it doesn't mean the rest of the document is true. And just because a single fact in the document is false, that doesn't mean the rest of the document is false.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That the entire thing is false.

Well, John Sipher, let's go back to what you said a minute ago. You said there are parts of this that are credible, and you said it's the way the Russians operate. What did you mean by that?

JOHN SIPHER: It must look odd to views or anybody who has read this thing. It's such a different world.

But Russia is a police state. Russia has been a police state for much of its history. And this is the way they often do business. They collect blackmail on people. When I lived there, we had audio and video in our houses. We were followed all the time. Restaurants and places, hotels like this are — have video and audio in them. They collect this.

They do psychological profiling of people to try to see who might be sources for them. This is just the way the Russians operate. So when you read this, it smacks of the kind of thing that we would believe is credible. That doesn't mean it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The methods.

JOHN SIPHER: Right, the methods, right, and the — right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you went on to say that the precise details in here are not borne out, are not verified by any individuals outside of this report, the British — the British office.

JOHN SIPHER: Right.

And in that sense, it's difficult because of the hyperpartisan atmosphere here. The fact that this is now in the public is going to spin up on the salacious details and these type of things, whereas I think the FBI does have a lot of experience doing very sensitive investigations like this, working with partners overseas and others to try to put this together, because there are a lot of details that we as citizens can't follow up on.

Did people travel during those certain days? Who are these people? And that's the kind of stuff that we just can't do, and the FBI can and will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For example, Susan Hennessey, there's a reference in here to an attempt to get the FISA court, the court that has to OK investigations, surveillance of individuals, permission for them to look at four different people who were working for the Trump campaign, the Trump Organization. How unusual would something like that be?

SUSAN HENNESSEY: So, certainly, it's highly unusual in the context of a political campaign or a presidential election.

That said, there is news reports that perhaps there were additional attempts to secure a FISA warrant, and that the FBI reportedly obtained one in October. If the allegations in the documents are true, are accurate, those are the kinds of things that would fall within FISA.

That's the type of warrant that the government would pursue. That said, just like everything else, we're a step away from actually verifying the substance of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Verifying.

John Sipher, if you're in charge of the investigation to figure out what is and what isn't right, if anything is accurate in here, what do you need to do now?

JOHN SIPHER: What you need to do is take each piece of this document and run it to ground.

So, you need to find out — they talk — the issue here is not the salacious details, the blackmail piece. The issue here is the criminal behavior if people in the Trump campaign were working with Russian intelligence to collect information on Americans.

If that's the case, there's a lot of detail in there that needs to be verified. And we have to find out, did the people travel on the days they said they traveled, those type of things? So, there are a lot of things to run down that you can run down with your partners and information that you can collect as part of an investigation in U.S. travel records, all these type of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Hennessey, what would you add to that? If you were involved in trying to determine if any parts of this are accurate or to verify that they're not accurate, how would do you that?

SUSAN HENNESSEY: Right.

So, certainly, the FBI is going to be calling on all of their resources to investigate the specific allegations, things like travel records, things like financial documents. They're also going to need to draw on intelligence sources. And so there are specific sort of comments about meetings between Putin and others, very sort of high-level, high-value intelligence targets.

They would really need to reach very deeply into their intelligence networks and the networks of allied intelligence agencies in order to see if anything to lend credibility or substantiate these very serious allegations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Sipher, we saw that Senator John McCain had a role, the Republican senator, of course, from Arizona, had a role in this. How did he come into this, and does that tell us anything?

JOHN SIPHER: Well, Senator McCain, obviously, has a lot of experience working with the government on sensitive things and has always been a hawk on Russia issues. And I'm supportive of that. I think he's been good in that case.

My understanding is the author of this himself provided information, this information to get to the FBI, through Mr. McCain, who got the information through the FBI.

And, obviously, other news places had it. What's interesting is President Trump, President-elect  Trump seems to think that the intelligence agencies themselves leaked this information, whereas it doesn't seem to me that that's the case.

The fact that you and others have had this for so long and actually held off on putting it suggests to me that this information has been out there for a while, and I think that's why General Clapper and others briefed the president-elect on this last Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that?

SUSAN HENNESSEY: So, I think this is an incredibly important point.

So, when President-elect Trump today seemed to suggest that he believes the intelligence community leaked this, saying it would be a blot if they had done so, there's absolutely no indication that the intelligence community is the source of the documents.

BuzzFeed, the organization that published this document, this is actually not even an intelligence community document. It is a private company. It's not even classified material. And so a little bit, there is a suspicion that once again Donald Trump is using his personal attacks on the intelligence community a little bit to divert attention away from the substance of the allegations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly to both of you, how confident are you that we're going to know eventually whether this is — whether any of this is accurate?

JOHN SIPHER: I have confidence.

Yes, I have confidence that the FBI is going to follow this through. My nervousness is that these kind of things are going to dribble and drabble out for the next several years and cause a real problem for this administration going forward.

SUSAN HENNESSEY: Because this is so important to the credibility of the president, we would really want to see him establish some kind of independent commission or council in order to really get to the bottom of these facts and provide some reassurance to the American people, not only that this is being investigated, but also that President-elect Trump himself is taking this matter very seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Hennessey, John Sipher, we thank you both.

JOHN SIPHER: Thank you.

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