A classified report delivered to President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump last week included a section summarizing allegations that Russian intelligence services have compromising material and information on Trump's personal life and finances, U.S. officials said.
The officials said that U.S. intelligence agencies have not corroborated those allegations, but believed that the sources involved in the reporting were credible enough to warrant inclusion of their claims in the highly classified report on Russian interference in the presidential campaign.
Trump, however, replied Tuesday night with a Tweet declaring: "FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!"
A senior U.S. official with access to the document told the Washington Post that the allegations were presented at least in part to underscore that Russia appeared to have collected embarrassing information on both major candidates, but only released material that might harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — a reflection of Russian motivation that bolstered U.S. spy agencies' conclusion that Moscow sought to help Trump win.
The inclusion of such unsubstantiated allegations in the election report, a development first reported Tuesday by CNN, adds a disturbing new dimension to existing concerns about Russia's efforts to undermine American democracy.
And it adds another bizarre twist to an already strange election year, injecting new controversy over the Trump team's relations with Russia just when the president-elect is trying to consolidate and launch his new administration.
If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information — known in espionage circles by the Russian term kompromat — that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House. The claims were presented in a two-page summary attached to the full report, an addendum that also included allegations of ongoing contact between members of Trump's inner circle and representatives of Moscow.
The Russian embassy did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night. Officials in Moscow earlier this week dismissed the intelligence report on Russian interference in the election and the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said its accusations have "no substance."
U.S. officials said the claims about Russian possession of compromising material were based not on information obtained through traditional intelligence channels but research done by an outside entity engaged in political consulting work and led by a former high-ranking British intelligence official. The material was first mentioned in a Mother Jones report in October.
U.S. officials said that while the FBI had so far not confirmed the accuracy of the claims, U.S. officials had evaluated the sources relied upon by the private firm, considered them credible, and determined that it was plausible that they would have firsthand knowledge of Russia's alleged dossier on Trump.
The CIA, the FBI and the White House declined to comment on the matter.
After CNN's report Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump's nominee to be the next attorney general, was asked at his confirmation hearing about the allegations in the intelligence report.
"If it's true, it's obviously extremely serious," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said after reading from the CNN report. "And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?"
Sessions responded that he was "not aware of any of those activities."
Dossiers compiled by the former British intelligence official have been circulating in Washington for months. One U.S. official said that Trump was briefed on the allegations "mostly a courtesy" to let him know they were out there.
Compiled initially in mid 2016 and supplemented during and after the campaign, the reports include detailed allegations that the Russians hold compromising material about Trump, some of it obtained while Trump visited Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant and on a previous visit to Russia.
Other reports compiled by the former intelligence official allege contacts between Trump personnel and business officials and Russian officials during the campaign. The former intelligence official was at one point paid to explore Trump's ties to Russia by anti-Trump Republicans and later by supporters of the Democratic Party.