Does Russia have Kompromat on Trump? Here's Putin's strange answer
Posted July 16, 2018 1:13 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — Does Russia have compromising information -- "Kompromat" -- on President Donald Trump?
The issue came up point-blank when both Putin and Trump sidestepped their way around it.
Also, the awkwardness of Putin, who bragged of being a former spy, being asked if Russians have compromising information on Trump while standing next to Trump cannot be understated.
What neither man said was "no."
This has been a long-term tease of the larger Russia 2016 story.
Fired former FBI Director James Comey brought the issue of Kompromat roaring to life during his book tour when he said he just plain didn't know if certain dossier allegations were true and also wrote that Trump had raised the issue of compromising video evidence with him.
"Honestly, I never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013," Comey said on ABC News back in April. "It's possible, but I don't know."
What happened Monday in Helsinki isn't likely to put the embers of those rumors out.
In practice, Kompromat could be any number of things, however, from financial dealings or information to simple evidence of collusion. Although Trump has denied, repeatedly and to the rooftops, that there was collusion, the special counsel has not yet fully weighed in on the matter. And we certainly know the President's son met campaign officials and people claiming to have compromising information on Hillary Clinton before the election.
Trump was asked about whether he believes the US intelligence agencies' assessment that it was Russia and whether, at the news conference, he would denounce it and tell Putin to stop.
The results of that question, the headline from the news conference, were that Trump clearly doesn't trust the US intelligence agencies over Putin, that instead he turned to a grab bag of conspiracy theories about Democrats, that he clearly wouldn't be condemning the actions. He seemed actually admiring of Putin's strength.
"So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said, before endorsing as an "incredible offer" Putin's weird idea to have Russian investigators work with the FBI on the investigation of Russian intelligence.
But right after that, Putin asked for a word to drive home he knows a lot about spycraft (and all of this is through a translator):
"I'd like to add something to this. After all, I was an intelligence officer myself, and I do know how dossiers are made up. Just a -- just a second. That's the first thing."
He then argued specific points about the investigation, ending with the idea that a court of law must hear the arguments against Russians. But why bring up the dossier at that moment?
A dossier is a briefing file drawn up about a person or thing. But there's also The Dossier, at least as it figures in this story in the US, and that's the briefing file half full of rumors about compromising information supposedly held by the Russians that a former British intelligence officer compiled for a US opposition research firm.
Was Putin talking about a dossier or was this a reference to The Dossier?
He was asked directly a few moments later.
"Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?"
It was the second of a two-part question, but Putin made sure to come back to it.
"And now, to the compromising material," he said. "Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Well, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn't even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."
Putin then segued to all the rich and powerful people who visit Russia and how he can't keep track of them.
"Well, let's take St. Petersburg Economic Forum, for instance," Putin said, referencing an annual event for bigwigs. "There were over 500 American businessmen, high-ranking, high-level ones. I don't even remember the last names of each and every one of them. Well, do you remember -- do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? Well, it's difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this. Well, please, just disregard these issues and don't think about this anymore again."
Ahem. 500 American businessman are hoping not.
The question, recall, was whether the Russian government has compromising information. The answer did not include the word no. And it also pivoted from whether the Russian government has or doesn't have to whether Putin personally knew Trump was in Moscow in 2013. Those are not the same thing.
Interestingly, Trump's former bodyguard alluded to some of the rumors in the dossier in closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill last year, when he said he rejected an offer of prostitutes for Trump.
At the news conference, Trump jumped in to have a word on the idea of Kompromat, too.
"It would have been out long ago," he said, before trying to change the subject. "And if anybody watched Peter Strzok testify over the last couple of days -- and I was in Brussels watching it -- it was a disgrace to the FBI, it was a disgrace to our country, and you would say that was a total witch hunt."
And then Trump ended the news conference with a "Thank you, everybody."
What neither man said was any variation of "no, the Russian government does not have compromising information on President Trump or his family."
And that doesn't mean the government does have any information. But it would have been easy for either man to just say no.