- At Monday’s press conference in Finland, the Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire directly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?”
- Putin did not immediately or directly say no. He gave a lengthy answer, toward the end saying “it’s difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this.”
- Whether that is a denial is open to interpretation.
- Even if a rumoured incriminating video exists, Putin is unlikely to ever acknowledge it.
In the wild joint US-Russia press conference on Monday in Finland, perhaps the most uncomfortable moment came when Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked whether he had “compromising material” on US President Donald Trump. The idea, kept afloat as Trump has consistently declined to criticise Putin even as he attacks US allies, can be traced back to the rumoured existence of a years-old video said to feature Trump with two prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.
The gossipy allegation – vehemently denied by Trump – first emerged in the Steele dossier, a document listing everything that the former MI6 agent Christopher Steele heard from his intelligence sources about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia in 2016. Russian security services are known to gather compromising information on potential targets.
No such video involving Trump has ever been aired publicly.
On Monday, however, the Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire directly asked Putin, “Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?”
“And now to the compromising material. Yeah, I did heard these rumours 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 in 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. Let’s take St. Petersburg economic forum, for instance. There were over 500 American businessmen – high-ranking, high-level ones. 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, it’s difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this. Please disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”
There is a lot going on in that answer, but nowhere does Putin directly deny the question.
The first few sentences avoided the question. Putin then – unprompted – began arguing that it would be impractical for the Russian security services to bug every attendee of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. But even then he didn’t specifically say “we didn’t do this.”
Toward the end of his answer, the phrase “it’s difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this” could be read as a denial, but it comes after his discussing the logistics of bugging lots of people and not as a direct response to the original question.
So Putin’s answer is open to interpretation. If you believe that Putin was being deliberately elliptical as a hint that he may have dirt on Trump – or as a way of making people think he does – that’s your answer. Alternatively, it’s a denial.
Of course, all this is academic: If an incriminating video does exist, Putin is unlikely to acknowledge it because doing so would eliminate any leverage its existence provides.
Trump seemed to hear the denial he wanted. “And I have to say if they had it, it would have been out long ago,” he said in response to the same question.
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