Any notions that 2017 was going to be slightly less surreal than its predecessor were swiftly batted to one side on Wednesday morning as #WaterSportsGate became top trend on Twitter.
The unusual hashtag was spawned off the back of sensational memos revealed by CNN and published in full by BuzzFeed News, claiming Russia holds compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump.
Here’s what we know and don’t know so far:
First, the big one.
1) We don’t know if the allegations are true
These claims have been reported before, they aren’t independently verified, and even the man who originally broke the story has warned readers to treat them cautiously, but they are being taken seriously enough to warrant the US intelligence services’ attention.
We also haven’t seen how much of this information the intelligence community thought was worth mentioning or able to find some verification for in the two-page document that was reportedly presented to Barack Obama and Trump.
2) The source
The unsubstantiated dossier on Trump was compiled by a former Western intelligence operative as part of an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client who opposed Trump, and later funded by Democrats, according to Mother Jones, which published an article about the report in October and said the operative had turned over the report to the FBI. The New York Times reported the operative had previously worked for British intelligence.
The Associated Press has not been able to substantiate the information in the dossier, which misspelled the name of Russia’s largest bank Alfa Group, which was spelled “Alpha”.
The memos discuss videos covertly recorded by the FSB (Russian security services) in a Moscow hotel room in 2013 and cite ‘Source D’ as saying Trump’s conduct included hiring prostitutes “to perform a ‘golden showers” (urination) show in front of him.’
These acts are alleged to have occurred in a suite and on a bed where the Obamas had previously stayed.
3) Trump was told about the allegations last week
A summary of the allegations was separate from a classified assessment of Russia’s suspected attempts to meddle in the US presidential election. Trump and Obama were reportedly briefed on the intelligence community’s findings last week, reports the Associated Press.
It’s unclear why the intelligence officials decided to brief the president and Trump on the uncorroborated information at this time, but lawmakers and others have repeatedly noted that Russia collects intelligence on both Democrats and Republicans.
“The Russians also hacked systems associated with the Republicans. They just chose not to release that material yet,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Tuesday. “There’s nothing that prevents them from doing so at a time of their choosing in the future.”
4) The reports have been circulating for months
In October, former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote to the FBI asking the bureau to publicly disclose what it knew about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Reid was aware of the dossier before he wrote the letter, according to a person knowledgeable about the subject who spoke on condition of anonymity.
5) The embarrassing allegation that’s gone viral
What has piqued the interest of many are allegations that Trump paid prostitutes to urinate in front of him on a bed previously slept on by the Obamas, colloquially known as a ‘Golden Shower’.
This is what spawned the hashtag #WaterSportsGate, leading to a smorgasbord of urine-related puns.
6) Donald Trump definitely doesn’t think they’re true
He’s so mad he’s gone FULL CAPS LOCK.
UPDATE: Since publishing this article Trump has tweeted the following.
Although it may have been a mistake to tweet the story that details the allegations to 19.4m people.
Trump’s lawyer and adviser, Michael Cohen, has also denied secretly meeting with Russian officials in Prague in August or September of last year to discuss Russian hacking of Democrats.
Although this too has been lampooned as not providing any counter-evidence.
8) The Kremlin doesn’t think it’s true
A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin has denied allegations that the Kremlin has collected compromising information about Trump.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday dismissed news reports as a “complete fabrication and utter nonsense.” Peskov insisted that the Kremlin “does not engage in collecting compromising material.”
7) The rest of the world doesn’t care if it’s true
8) A lot of people are questioning if BuzzFeed should have published the entire dossier
Despite the details of the claims being unsubstantiated, BuzzFeed chose to publish them, prompting a heated debate about journalistic ethics.
The information is unverified and from anonymous sources, much like a lot of the “fake news” publishers such as BuzzFeed itself has rallied against.
Most news organizations, including The Associated Press, held back on the specific allegations because they had not been substantiated.
David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones, said:
When breaking the story, CNN also chose not to publish the details saying it “has not independently corroborated the specific allegations”.
BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief tweeted a memo sent to his staff outlining his justification.
As you have probably seen, this evening we published a secret dossier making explosive and unverified allegations about Donald Trump and Russia I wanted to briefly explain to you how we made the decision to publish it We published the dossier, which Ken Bensinger obtained through his characteristically ferocious reporting; so that, as we wrote, “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government
Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” Mr. Smith wrote. “We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media.
Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice,” Mr. Smith added. “But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.
It’s the latest, and a vitally important, example of how the internet has changed the flow of news and information, said veteran media ethicist Bob Steele.
“It’s a very, very difficult time for editors of mainstream news organisations,” he said.
BuzzFeed is taking a big risk by publishing the information, he said. It’s important if such allegations are spread that organisations are clear about what has or hasn’t been substantiated, and whether an effort is being made to do so, he said.
9) Alec Baldwin will be... wetting himself with excitement
The Saturday Night Live star regularly lampoons Trump and this latest information is... golden (sorry).
10) Trump is due to give a press conference later today
Trump tweeted earlier this month stating he would be holding a “news conference” on the 11th January.
It is ostensibly to allow questions over what role he believes Russia played in the election year hacking of Democratic groups - interference the intelligence community says was intended to help the Republican defeat Clinton.
Trump has challenged that assessment and has yet to say whether a full briefing with intelligence officials last week did anything to sway him.
Whether or not he will follow through with the press conference after this furore is yet to be seen. It’s due to take place at 4pm GMT.
11) Any investigation could be very awkward for Trump
An active FBI investigation of the next president for ties between his campaign and a nation accused of meddling in the presidential election could further stoke mistrust in the legitimacy of the democratic process. It could also put Trump’s own FBI in the awkward position of examining the conduct of those closest to the commander-in-chief.
The FBI was among three U.S. intelligence agencies that collaborated on last week’s report on Russia’s election activity. It tied Putin to the hacking of email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. It said there was no evidence the Russians tampered with vote tallies; the agencies said they couldn’t assess if Russia succeeded in influencing Americans to vote for Trump.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who opposed Trump in the GOP primary, said Russia’s activity wasn’t guided by its support for Trump, but rather “to influence and to potentially manipulate American public opinion for the purpose of discrediting individual political figures, sowing chaos and division in our politics, sowing doubts about the legitimacy of our elections.”