Speculation that the Kremlin possesses compromising information on President Donald Trump has dogged him since he entered office. The possibility that a foreign adversary might be blackmailing an American President is unnerving. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s evasive response, when asked about it directly, was far from reassuring.
At the end of a press conference following the meeting between the U.S. President and the Russian leader in Helsinki, an Associated Press reporter asked Putin a simple yes or no question. “Do you, does the Russian government, have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?”
Strikingly, Putin dispatched the question without ever precisely denying the accusation.
“Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow,” Putin said, referring to Trump’s 2013 trip for the Miss Universe Pageant. It was during this 2013 visit to Moscow that an opposition research dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele claims Russian intelligence secretly recorded an encounter between Trump and several prostitutes who allegedly urinated on a bed once slept in by President Obama in front of Trump. Putin might have said this is a salacious, untrue allegation from a document commissioned by Trump’s Democratic opponent. Instead, he skirted the question.
“When President Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow,” Putin said. “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.”
Perhaps, but whether or not Putin knew Trump was in Moscow isn’t really relevant. The question is, did Russian intelligence know Trump was there and gather dirt on him? Putin’s deflection leaves open the disturbing possibility that the answer is yes.
Putin then turned to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, noting that there were hundreds of people in attendance and Russia’s intelligence services couldn’t possibly monitor all of them.
“There were over 500 American businessmen, high-ranking, high-level ones,” Putin explained. “I don’t even remember the last names of each and every one. Do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them?”
Well, no. However, it’s certainly possible that the Kremlin tried to collect dirt on at least some of them, including Trump.
Nothing Putin said confirmed that Russia had dirt on Trump. Still, conspicuously absent in Putin’s answer was the simple word “no.”
If Putin does indeed possess such material, denying that it exists now might well make it harder to use down the road. Compromising information is only useful if there is a credible threat that it might be publicized.
None of this proves anything. Still, if there is nothing to it, it’s hard to understand why Putin didn’t just say so.