Editor Explains Why Lawfare Has Not Published The Trump Dossier

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 5:26 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to talk more about that unverified dossier alleging that Trump and his team colluded with the Russian government and that Russia had compromising information about Trump. These of course are allegations that Trump denies.

Like many news organizations, the national security blog Lawfare has had this dossier for weeks but has not published it mainly because the allegations have not been proven. In a post, the blog's editor in chief, Benjamin Wittes, is advising everyone to take a deep breath as reporters work to verify the contents of the dossier.

But he writes, the very fact that information about this dossier reportedly made it into intelligence briefings means top officials are taking it seriously. I asked him to explain that.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Well, so there's a huge amount of garbage that comes through the intelligence community on a daily basis. And part of the intelligence community's job is to filter that garbage and to find in it the things that the president and, in this case, the president-elect needs to know.

And the fact that a two-page digest of this material appeared as an annex to the Russian hacking report that the president and the president-elect were briefed on last week suggests that at least for some reason, the senior intelligence leadership decided that it was important for them to know about this material. And that doesn't necessarily mean that it's true.

MCEVERS: Right.

WITTES: But it does mean that it was deemed significant enough that they couldn't not tell their clients about it.

MCEVERS: I want to step back for a minute and just consider this question. If some of the allegations in this dossier are proven to be true - if - it could mean that Russia has some compromising information on Donald Trump. What are the national security implications of that?

WITTES: Well, I mean the national security implications of a adversary foreign power having serious compromising information that is nonpublic on a president of the United States are vast for the simple reason that the president knows that this information exists and is therefore fearful that the information will emerge. That will influence his maneuverability with respect to dealing with that foreign power.

Now, the consequences of information that may be compromising but that there is widespread public knowledge about may be less vast. You know, imagine, for example, this information were shown to be true through some investigation. And so we all sort of knew that this information was out there and the Russians had it. Then I think the consequences of its disclosure would be a lot less. And that would actually - the publicity around it would itself arguably ameliorate...

MCEVERS: Right.

WITTES: ...That aspect of the problem.

MCEVERS: Is this dossier fake news as Trump says, or is it a potentially serious document? Or do we just not know yet?

WITTES: We just don't know. I think the fact that the intelligence community briefed the president and the president-elect on this material is not fake news. It appears to be true, and the media, by the way, I think deserves a lot of credit for the responsible way in which it handled this material, which is to say, a lot of news organizations had this, devoted significant resources to trying to verify it. And no major media outlet ran with these allegations prior to yesterday when a major news event involving this document took place. That is, it emerged that the president and the president-elect had been briefed by the intelligence community on it.

Now, that said, nobody knows except I suppose people in Russian intelligence and, to some extent, the Trump people, whether the allegations in this are true or made up whole cloth or have elements of truth but are not completely true. And so my view is there's a lot of reasons to think this is a non-trivial event, and there is no substantiation for any of the most serious materials alleged in this document.

MCEVERS: Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

WITTES: Thanks for having me.

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