“Very tantalizing headline,” CNN host Chris Cuomo tells Jim Sciutto, but that’s about all it is. Almost two weeks ago, CNN reported that intercepts between Russian intel operatives suggested that they wanted to influence Donald Trump through Mike Flynn. New leaks from what seems to be similar sourcing now say that the Russians bragged between each other during the campaign last year about having leverage through derogatory information on finances, either on Trump or his campaign aides:
Russian government officials discussed having potentially “derogatory” information about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and some of his top aides in conversations intercepted by US intelligence during the 2016 election, according to two former intelligence officials and a congressional source.
One source described the information as financial in nature and said the discussion centered on whether the Russians had leverage over Trump’s inner circle. The source said the intercepted communications suggested to US intelligence that Russians believed “they had the ability to influence the administration through the derogatory information.”
But wait — there’s less! According to the same sources, and just as with their scoop two weeks ago, just because the Russians bragged about something doesn’t mean they actually had the goods:
But the sources, privy to the descriptions of the communications written by US intelligence, cautioned the Russian claims to one another “could have been exaggerated or even made up” as part of a disinformation campaign that the Russians did during the election.
One can posit three different scenarios for both CNN scoops on intel intercepts. Case One: Trump’s really dirty, and has Russian ties and financial commitments that are known to US intelligence. That would be a reason to leak the damaging evidence to the US media, as a way to eventually expose those ties without risk to the leakers. If that was true, though, why would intel and Congressional sources leak Russian intercepts that prove nothing at all? Why not leak the real stuff? Both this and the Flynn leaks hardly rise to the level of damning Trump; right now, it looks more damning to the intel communities that are leaking these raw communications without any larger context. Trump may well have picked that fight during the campaign and transition, but the lack of any real damaging info is making it look more and more like it doesn’t exist at all and that this is a petty campaign to damage a duly elected president.
Case Two: Russia created these conversations deliberately to sucker the American IC community. This one’s an 8-dimensional chess theory, but it would at least fit within the broader ambition of undermining confidence in the US electoral system. If that was Russia’s mission, then attacking Hillary Clinton and the DNC as corrupt would hardly be enough. They would need to undermine the only other option too, by insinuating that he’s corrupt in an entirely different way. This one looks like a stretch, though, because it would necessarily complicate Russia’s long-term relations with the US.
Case Three: Russian intelligence agents didn’t have anything much more than perceived opportunities, and liked to discuss them a lot when they thought others weren’t listening. This seems the most likely, even if it posits a certain level of sloppiness on the part of the Russians. That makes these leaks even more frustrating, because we are exposing surveillance capabilities that the Russians may have overlooked — and it will be more difficult to listen in on future conversations as a result. That’s one good reason that DHS Secretary John Kelly suggested that the leaks are “darn close to treason” when asked about them on Sunday’s Meet the Press.
So yes, we’re getting very tantalizing headlines, but so far the stories themselves aren’t delivering on their promises. And after months of these leaks, the amorphous and insubstantial nature of what’s coming out — and the caveats of the vendors selling them — strongly suggests that we’ll never get the payoff that the headlines promise.