Classified documents presented last week to President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump included unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings told CNN.
The allegations that became public Tuesday were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work U.S. intelligence officials consider credible. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
Shortly after news reports were published about the briefing, Mr. Trump tweeted: “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
The classified briefings last week were presented by four of the senior-most U.S. intelligence chiefs — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers.
One reason the nation's intelligence chiefs took the extraordinary step of including the synopsis in the briefing documents was to make the president-elect aware that such allegations involving him are circulating among intelligence agencies, senior members of Congress and other government officials in Washington, D.C., multiple sources told CNN.
These senior intelligence officials also included the synopsis to demonstrate that Russia had compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties, but only released information damaging to Hillary Clinton and Democrats. This synopsis was not an official part of the report from the intelligence community case about Russian hacks, but some officials said it augmented the evidence that Moscow intended to harm Ms. Clinton's candidacy and help Mr. Trump's, several officials with knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.
The two-page synopsis also included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, according to two national security officials.
Sources tell CNN that these same allegations about communications between the Trump campaign and the Russians, mentioned in classified briefings for congressional leaders last year, prompted then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to send a letter to Mr. Comey in October, in which he wrote, “It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top adviser, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”
CNN has confirmed that the synopsis was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump but cannot confirm if it was discussed in his meeting with the intelligence chiefs.
The Trump transition team declined repeated requests for comment.
CNN has reviewed a 35-page compilation of the memos, from which the two-page synopsis was drawn. The memos originated as opposition research, first commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans, and later by Democrats. At this point, CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations. But, in preparing this story, CNN has spoken to multiple high ranking intelligence, administration, congressional and law enforcement officials, as well as foreign officials and others in the private sector with direct knowledge of the memos.
Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer. What has changed since then is that U.S. intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the president and president-elect a few days ago.
On the same day that the president-elect was briefed by the intelligence community, the top four Congressional leaders, and chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — the so-called “Gang of Eight” — were also provided a summary of the memos regarding Mr. Trump, according to law enforcement, intelligence and administration sources.
The two-page summary was written without the detailed specifics and information about sources and methods included in the memos by the former British intelligence official. That said, the synopsis was considered so sensitive it was not included in the classified report about Russian hacking that was more widely distributed, but rather in an annex only shared at the most senior levels of the government: Mr. Obama, the president-elect and the eight Congressional leaders.
CNN has also learned that on Dec. 9, Sen. John McCain of Arizona gave a full copy of the memos — dated from June through December 2016 — to Mr. Comey. Mr. McCain became aware of the memos from a former British diplomat who had been posted in Moscow. But the FBI had already been given a set of the memos compiled up to August 2016, when the former MI6 agent presented them to an FBI official in Rome, according to national security officials.
The raw memos on which the synopsis is based were prepared by the former MI6 agent, who was posted in Russia in the 1990s and now runs a private intelligence gathering firm. His investigations related to Mr. Trump were initially funded by groups and donors supporting Republican opponents of Mr. Trump during the GOP primaries, multiple sources confirmed to CNN. Those sources also said that once Mr. Trump became the nominee, further investigation was funded by groups and donors supporting Hillary Clinton.
Spokespeople for the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. Officials who spoke to CNN declined to do so on the record given the classified nature of the material.
Some of the allegations were first reported publicly in Mother Jones one week before the election.
One high level administration official told CNN, “I have a sense the outgoing administration and intelligence community is setting down the pieces so this must be investigated seriously and run down. I think [the] concern was to be sure that whatever information was out there is put into the system so it is evaluated as it should be and acted upon as necessary.”
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., on Tuesday evening tweeted: “If Intel report is true, it would be the most treacherous and criminal act in US political history. Congress must investigate immediately.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Comey was pressed by Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee about whether the FBI was conducting an investigation. There was no mention during the hearing about the summary of the dossier, which was attached to the classified hacking assessment.
Mr. Comey did not comment. He did, however, tell the panel that Russian hackers stole information from state-level Republican Party computer servers and old Republican National Committee digital domains, but that information wasn’t leaked and posted online.
He called it a “limited penetration of old RNC” computer systems that were “no longer in use.”
Associated Press, Tribune News Service and The New York Times contributed.