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Our man in Washington: Ex-Shropshire reporter on what could be Trump's Watergate

North Shropshire | News | Published:

Allegations of a sex tape involving Donald Trump could potentially be the biggest scandal US history – eclipsing the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

That is the verdict of the former Shropshire journalist who has been leading coverage of the astonishing story threatening to engulf this week's inauguration of the next US president.

Many presidents stumble upon a scandal late into office. Donald Trump is embroiled even before he is given the keys to the White House on Friday.

It is a fascinating scenario for former Shropshire Star journalist Paul Wood, whose parents still live in Tong, near Albrighton.

The 50-year-old joined the Shropshire Star as a trainee in 1989, working initially on sister papers the Market Drayton Advertiser and the Newport Advertiser, before moving onto the Star in 1991.

He is now the BBC Washington correspondent and one of a few who has had direct contact with those making allegations against Mr Trump.

Mr Wood first became aware of claims about a sex tape in August last year. Further investigations revealed that the threat was seen as credible by the security services, but the BBC decided not to run the story on the basis that the allegations could not be corroborated.

He says the allegations are undoubtedly the biggest story to rock American politics since the Watergate affair of the mid 1970s, although the impact it has on Mr Trump's presidency will depend on whether any concrete evidence of the tape comes to light.

"It is unquestionably the biggest story since Watergate," he said. "Depending on how it pans out, is could potentially be the biggest story in American politics since the formation of the republic.

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"But that said, it must be stressed that that's all they are, they are allegations. Until somebody has seen the tape, or goes on the record as having said they have seen the tape, which is not going to happen now.

"If that doesn't happen, it could just fizzle out."

He says he first heard claims that Mr Trump may have been compromised by the Russians during the early stages of the primary campaigns in March 2015, although the nature of that material was not known at that time.

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"Initially, it surrounded claims that Mr Trump may have received money from Eastern Europe to fund his election campaign," he said. "I didn't believe it at the time, but nevertheless I started investigating. Then in August this year we heard there was a sex blackmail tape of Mr Trump."

Approaches to serving agents with the security services drew a blank, but then Mr Wood made his breakthrough.

"I had some luck with some people who were retired, but still had security clearance," he says.

"A retired spy told me he had been informed of the tape's existence by 'the head of an East European intelligence agency'."

Then, using an intermediary, he managed to pass some questions to serving CIA officers who had dealt with the case.

"I got a message back that there was 'more than one tape', 'audio and video', on 'more than one date', in 'more than one place' – in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg – and that the material was 'of a sexual nature'."

Then in October – just before Mr Trump's bitterly fought election victory over Hillary Clinton – Mr Wood saw the dossier by former MI6 agent Chris Steele, which is now at the centre of the furore.

At the time, the BBC decided not to run with the story on the basis that the allegations were unsubstantiated.

"The media has a duty to behave responsibly, and in this case I think it has," he said.

"The BBC decided not to use it then, for the very good reason that without seeing the tape – if it exists – we could not know if the claims were true. The detail of the allegations were certainly lurid."

He says the story has only now come to light because the documents were handed to President Obama, giving them extra credibility.

"The fact that it has landed on President Obama's desk is enough to confirm that it is being taken seriously," he added.

Mr Wood says many of his investigations involved cloak-and-dagger techniques which were not unlike scenes from espionage films.

"All this information is classified, and anybody who leaks any of this is not just putting their careers at risk, but is also breaking the law," he said.

"Very often people will not actually say anything, but you have an understanding where if they deny something, then you know it is not true, but if they respond to your questions with silence then it may be.

"That said, the US is a more open society than Britain, people do talk."

Last year, Mr Wood got a fascinating insight into the man who is set to become the next leader of the free world when he followed him on the campaign trail during the summer last year.

"I got a sense of his personality. He is an extremely egotistical, narcissistic individual, and this side of him leads to extreme risk-taking.

Energy

"He was massively in debt a few years ago, but he seemed to thrive on that, it seemed to give him an energy to take these massive risks."

While Mr Wood's revelations have led the news agenda over the past few days, they have also attracted some criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mr Trump's supporters say the dossier was a politically motivated personal attack, which should never have been compiled, and certainly not reported.

And following an appearance of Mr Wood on BBC News at Ten last week, LBC Radio's Iain Dale tweeted: "The BBC News at Ten just sank to the level of Buzzfeed. An utter disgrace of a report from Paul Wood."

Mr Wood himself says the claims should be treated with scepticism unless the video actually surfaces.

"Nobody should believe something just because an intelligence agent says it," he said.

Mr Wood left the Shropshire Star to take up a post at the BBC in 1992.

During that time he has been on the front line, covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Dafur and Libya, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Balkans and Ukraine.

He was in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was embedded with the US marines for the assault on Fallujah in 2004.

During the Nato air attacks in Yugoslavia in 1999, he walked into Kosovo, sending out reports from behind Serbian lines.

His work has seen him scoop numerous accolades, including the Bayeux Award for war correspondents. At the moment he is making a documentary on the Western hostages murdered by the Islamic State.

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