WASHINGTON — The chiefs of US intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
The summary is based on memos generated by political operatives seeking to derail Trump’s candidacy. Details of the reports began circulating in the fall and were widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington.
The two-page summary, first reported by CNN, was presented as an appendix 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 Obama, Trump, and congressional leaders needed to be told about it and informed that the agencies were investigating it.
Intelligence officials were concerned the information would leak before they informed 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.
On Tuesday night, Trump responded on Twitter: “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
In an appearance recorded for NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, said of the claims in the opposition research memos, “He has said he is not aware of that.”
Trump was expected to hold a previously scheduled news conference Wednesday to discuss his future plans regarding his role with the Trump Organization.
Since the intelligence agencies’ report Friday that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had ordered the hacking and leaks of Democratic e-mails in order to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump, the president-elect and his aides have said that Democrats are trying to mar his election victory.
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 summarized 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 Trump’s Republican rivals and later by supporters of Clinton, his Democratic opponent. 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 Russian government of Putin has looked for ways to influence Trump, who has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to investigate real estate deals or to oversee the Miss Universe competition, which he owned for several years. Trump never completed any major deals in Russia, though he discussed them for years.
The former British intelligence officer who gathered the material about Trump is considered a competent and reliable operative with extensive experience in Russia, US 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 US intelligence.
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with 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 Trump.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes in order to win influence over Trump.
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 Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
If some of the unproven claims in the memos are merely titillating, others would amount to extremely serious, potentially treasonous acts.
One of the opposition research memos quotes an unidentified Russian source as claiming that the hacking and leaking of Democratic e-mails was carried out “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.” In return, the memo said, “the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” because Putin “needed to cauterize the subject.”
Michael Cohen, a lawyer and adviser to Trump, also went to Twitter to deny a specific claim in the opposition research involving him. One of the memos claims that Cohen went to Prague in August or September to meet with Kremlin representatives and to talk about Russian hacking of Democrats.
Cohen tweeted Tuesday night: “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews.”
The first hint of the FBI investigation came Tuesday in a Senate hearing in a series of questions from Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, to FBI Director James B. Comey.
Wyden, trying to draw 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. Comey demurred, saying he could not discuss any investigations that might or might not be underway.
Wyden kept pressing, asking Comey to provide a written answer to the question before Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20 because he feared there would be no declassification of the information once Trump took office.
After the hearing, Wyden posted on Twitter: “Director Comey refused to answer my question about whether the FBI has investigated Trump campaign contacts with Russia.”
New Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California., said Comey set a new standard by discussing the bureau’s activity related to Clinton’s private e-mail server. That standard, she said, is the FBI discusses ongoing investigations when there is a ‘‘unique public interest in the transparency of that issue.’’
The intelligence agencies’ findings on Russian hacking fit that standard, she argued.
‘‘I’m not sure I can think of an issue of more serious public interest than this one,’’ Harris said. ‘‘This committee needs to understand what the FBI does and does not know about campaign communications with Russia.’’
Sitting beside Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, ‘‘Fair point.’’
The FBI obtained the material long before the election, and some of the memos in the opposition research dossier are dated as early as June. But agents have struggled to confirm it, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
Allies of former senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader from Nevada who retired at the end of the year, said the disclosures validated his call last summer for an FBI investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. “The evidence of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign continues to mount,” Reid wrote in a letter to Comey on Aug. 27.