President Donald Trump, concerned that investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections cast doubt over his legitimacy, has consistently dismissed and denigrated such probes. The decision by Dianne Feinstein, as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, to unilaterally release the transcript of closed testimony by Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson adds a measure of much-needed transparency in the still-unfolding investigations. A careful—and apolitical–reading of the more than 300 pages sheds light on the work of the political research firm and the credibility of revelations thus far.
The primary impetus for the nine hours of Senate staff questioning of Simpson was the so-called “Steele Dossier,” a series of raw intelligence reports collected by former British MI-6 officer Christopher Steele, many of which paint Trump and his organization in a highly negative light.
Unfortunately, partisan politics are overshadowing the content of the dossier and the veracity of Steele and Simpson. Information in the transcript contributes significantly to the public’s ability to understand Russia’s goals for the election, as well as the level of professionalism not only of Fusion GPS but also of Steele and, indeed, the FBI.
So it is difficult to ascribe anything but political calculation to Republican opposition to making the transcript public. A spokesperson for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said the release “undermines the integrity of the committee’s oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid, voluntary testimony.” These complaints do not appear to be serious, given that the committee presumably could subpoena witnesses if it so desired. And in today’s leaky Washington, there is only an even chance that a transcript would remain confidential.
Simpson himself called for release of the transcript in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. Certainly no classified information was discussed, a valid reason often used to conduct closed hearings. Given all of this, Grassley’s opposition to the release of the transcript appears to be first and foremost a political decision, designed to keep Simpson’s comments out of the public eye.
Motivations for the Initial Research
Many believe the Democratic Party hired Fusion GPS to use Steele to get Russian dirt on Trump, and that this was a key goal from the outset. In fact, according to Simpson, his firm started its research on Trump the same way it did when researching anybody else, Republican or Democrat – using public sources.
The research “wasn’t really a Russia-focused investigation for the first half of it,” he told the committee staff. This is important because Simpson noted to the staffers that most of Fusion’s employees were former journalists, and as such, were used to conducting research using publicly available information.
It is also interesting that Simpson’s initial focus was on Trump’s business activities, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. As we will see in a moment, some of the business that caught Fusion’s attention was in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union.
Simpson indicated that only when public records had been exhausted did he contact Steele, someone he had known for years, in an attempt to obtain additional information, especially in regard to Trump activities in and around Russia. Portions of what Fusion researchers uncovered led them to suspect Russia played a significant role in the Trump story – suspicions that later seemed to be validated by Steele’s work with his Russian sources.
A Long History of Questionable Business Deals
This is a theme that arose several times during Simpson’s questioning. The Fusion CEO indicated that his initial research focused on identifying links between Trump’s business empire and organized crime worldwide. While the research did turn up non-Russian activity (the Italian mob is mentioned, for example though without detail), Fusion began to find more and more Russia-centric organized crime connections.
Felix Sater, whom Simpson describes as having ties to Russian organized crime, was an example. Simpson said that Trump stated under oath at some point – Simpson didn’t specify the context) that he did not know Sater well. Simpson indicated that “this was not true,” and that Trump “continued to associate with [Sater] long after he learned of Felix’s organized crime ties.”
Trump had business dealings all over the world, and trying to track them proved difficult, Simpson said.
“We became interested in his (Trump’s) [Trump’s] overseas business dealings particularly because they were so opaque and seemed to involve … to say the least, colorful characters,” Simpson said.
As Fusion dug further into Trump’s deals in the former Soviet Union –Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan, for example – Simpson became concerned.
“What came back was something … very different and obviously more alarming … which outlined a political conspiracy and a much broader set of issues than the ones we went looking for,” Simpson said. “Initially, we didn’t know what to do with this.”
Fusion’s research into the Trump businesses apparently revealed not only ties to Russian organized crime, but also possible darker intentions on the part of the Russian government. Now Fusion found itself unable to use public information, and so Simpson brought in Steele as a contractor to dig deeper, using the human intelligence techniques Steele had learned as an intelligence officer.
Simpson’s Trust of Steele
The Fusion CEO told the Senate staffers that he had known and worked with Steele for “eight or nine years,” and that, in a business where “a lot of people make stuff up and sell baloney,” Steele stood apart. Simpson made the common-sense business argument that good research and reporting, such as what Steele had provided in the past, made it more likely that Fusion and Steele would get additional business in the future.
Steele is “well-respected in his field, and, as I say, everyone I know who’s ever dealt with him thinks he’s quite good,” Simpson said. “That would include people from the U.S. government.”
So convinced was Fusion of Steele’s skills that Simpson believed Steele would be able to sort out what might be Russian disinformation, should one or more of Steele’s sources be under the control of the Russian government. Simpson reasoned that, given Steele’s long career as an intelligence officer focused on Russia, he would be able to identify false information provided by his Russian sources, and either omit them or include disclaimers in his reporting. This would be standard practice for any professional intelligence officer.
Reporting to the FBI … or Not
One of the more fascinating portions of the transcript describes Simpson and Steele wrestling with how to manage the information that began to flow in regarding the Trump organization’s cooperation with the Russian government. It is clear from the transcript that neither man was initially sure what to do with the bombshell information.
According to Simpson, it was Steele who first raised the issue of passing some of his information to the FBI, given Steele’s concerns that the Russians were attempting to influence the U.S. presidential elections. Simpson at first demurred, saying he needed to think about it. But Steele persisted, and when Steele said he had an old friend who was an FBI officer serving in Rome who could be used as a conduit, Simpson posed no objection to sharing the reporting with him.
“Let’s be clear,” Simpson also told the staffers, “this was not considered by me to be part of the work that we were doing … To me this was, like, you know, you’re driving in to work and you see something happen and you call 911.”
The transcripts reveal Simpson to be a convincing character, one whose firm had been hired over the years to do opposition research on both Republican and Democratic candidates. Fusion GPS’s modus operandi regarding such research seems consistent with Simpson’s journalistic roots and the skills he honed while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
On several occasions, Simpson highlighted the need to remain professionally and politically neutral when doing his job, not just because of the ethics of his work, but also because he (and his contractor Steele) understood that being an honest broker in his line of work would mean more clients would hire him in the future.
A question that isn’t answered in the hearing is what Steele told Simpson about who his Russian sources were, and how he obtained information from them. On multiple occasions, Simpson declined to answer questions about the sources in order to protect them; at one point, Simpson’s lawyer, Joshua Levy, pushed back at staffers’ questions on this by saying that one person in Russia had already died as a result of the release of the dossier.
Simpson was clearly focused on the reliability of Steele’s sources. But in the end, he put his trust in Steele’s expertise running Russian agents when he was an intelligence officer.
Much of the information discussed in the Simpson transcripts was already known. But in stark contrast to Trump and, apparently, Republicans on the committee, Simpson and Steele were so troubled by the information they collected that they decided to approach the FBI.
“I mean, for both of us, it was citizenship,” said Simpson. Perhaps citizenship is a concept worth remembering in the future when dealing with questions of Trump and Russia.