There exists a video online that, considering the subject matter, astoundingly few people have seen. It begins in medias res: In a chair, at the foot of a bed, sits the unmistakable figure of Donald Trump. He is offering what seem to be instructions to two near-nude women on the bed, one of whom is bottomless and standing over the other, who appears to be lying on her side.
I myself first became aware of it on Jan. 25, when New Republic writer Libby Watson texted me a screenshot of a DM she’d received on Twitter.
I opened the (now-defunct) Streamable link with the expectation that it would be an obvious fake, mostly because it seemed absurd to think a few random people on Twitter had gotten their hands on something that had been the subject of two years of constant speculation.
Before we go any further, bear this in mind, so no one gets confused: The pee tape is fake. This pee tape, anyway. Whether this pee tape is the pee tape—perhaps you’ve heard of it as the “piss tape,” or the “pee-pee tape,” or the “golden shower video”—is one of the things that are still unclear about it.
But it is very far from being an obvious fake. There are a number of reasons to believe that this pee tape would be real, and there are also a number of reasons to believe it is not. One reason to believe it is real is that it does exist—an extremely lifelike, extremely grainy video clip depicting Trump in the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, while two nude or near-nude women cavort in front of him—and you can watch it right now. The more I tried to prove to myself it wasn’t real, the less confident I became in my own skepticism.
This was, however, also a very, very powerful reason to keep believing it was fake: that the most extraordinarily damaging piece of evidence against the president could just be waiting there, in plain sight, with no one doing anything about it. If there are any lessons we should have learned by this point, in 2019, they’re that nothing could ever be that easy, and that few enough things are real.
What we know about the alleged tape
What is it that we understand ourselves to be viewing, when we view the pee tape? The public first became aware of the item and/or concept we’re referring to as the pee tape on Jan. 10, 2017 when BuzzFeed first published the Steele dossier, a collection of then-unverified intelligence memos alleging various connections between Trump and Russia. A number of the claims have since proved true, thanks to the Mueller report; others have not.
The most salacious of the allegations—that Trump had had a urine-soaked run-in with Russian sex workers while staying in the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow—falls into the unproved category. Here’s the dossier’s claim in full:
This unverified claim, that Trump ordered sex workers to urinate on a bed once slept in by former President Barack Obama, has been the subject of considerable fascination since it was published. More specifically, it has been the subject of my fascination. While people solemnly yet frantically held forth on national security and the possible influence of foreign powers, somewhere just over the horizon lurked the unseen image of our president supposedly conducting a symphony of urine. It was objectively hilarious that this gross and sleazy vignette might be the focus of national news, if not the fulcrum of history. I wanted to believe. I wanted to see it.
But I was certainly not alone. That brief bit of intel even inspired Stephen Colbert to go so far as to visit that same Moscow hotel room for an investigation in July 2017. In the process of examining the room, Colbert at one point broke an ashtray, only for the room’s phone to immediately ring. The front desk claimed that an alarm had been triggered.
Perhaps more curiously, in a bit that didn’t make it to air but was later reported by the Daily Beast, Colbert and his team discovered wiring behind a mirror that didn’t actually seem to require any electricity whatsoever. So some sort of surveillance setup certainly doesn’t seem out of the question.
On October 30, 2016, Michael Cohen received a text from Russian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze that said, “Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know … .” Rtskhiladze said “tapes” referred to compromising tapes of Trump rumored to be held by persons associated with the Russian real estate conglomerate Crocus Group, which had helped host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Russia. Cohen said he spoke to Trump about the issue after receiving the texts from Rtskhiladze. Rtskhiladze said he was told the tapes were fake, but did not communicate that to Cohen.