Senate Judiciary Committee interviews of the principals at Fusion GPS have been subject to a tug-of-war ever since Republicans made it clear that attacking the Steele dossier had become the center of their war on the Trump–Russia investigation. Republicans had been making claims about Fusion’s business relationships and the origins of the Steele dossier designed both to call the entire investigation into doubt, and to paint a picture of the whole process as both partisan and hypocritical.
However, the two partners at Fusion had already done extensive interviews with the Senate, addressing the issues that the Republicans were squawking about in public. Even as Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley and Sen. Lindsey Graham were leveling criminal charges at former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, Grassley was still refusing to release any transcripts—despite pleas from the people at Fusion and from Democrats on the committee.
Dianne Feinstein cut the Gordian knot on Tuesday in the most expeditious way possible. She simply released the transcript of the interview with Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson, without waiting for Grassley.
“The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.”
The contents show that Grassley’s deputy starts the interview by explicitly stating that the discussion is not classified, which makes it even harder to justify the way in which Republicans were picking and choosing snippets from the interview to attack Fusion, Steele, and the whole investigative process, but refusing to release the transcripts so the public could understand context.
Grassley and Graham failed to consult any Democrats on the committee before their headline-grabbing move to level criminal charges at Steele. And now … a small moment of payback.
Much of the transcript comes in the form of questions levied by Grassley’s deputy, Patrick Davis, and answered by Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson. Occasional issues are also raised by Simpson’s lawyers Joshua Levy, Robert Muse, and Rachel Clattenburg.
After a lengthy opening in which Davis attempts to tie Fusion to opponents of the Magnitsky Act via association through a legal case where Fusion was brought in as a research consultant to a law firm …
SIMPSON: Well, I object to the question the way the question is framed. You’ve sort of built into the question the sort of inference that we were doing something other than working on a legal case, and there’s extensive public record, documentation in Pacer of the work that we did and it was a legal case. So I don’t — it’s going to be difficult because it’s really hard for me to answer questions where you lump in all these things that other people were doing and impute them to me.
What follows is several hours of discussion about investor William Browder, corruption in Russia, and the long, tangled history that many of these characters have together. Most of this serves to show why someone would hire Fusion GPS if they had a question concerning connections with Russian mobsters.
Simpson: One of my interests or even obsessions over the last decade has been corruption in Russia and Russian kleptocracy and the police state that was there. I was stationed in Europe from 2005 to 2007 or ‘8. So I was there when Putin was consolidating power and all this wave of power was coming. So it’s been a subject that I’ve read very widely on and I’m very interested in the history of Putin’s rise.
The section is interesting, and doesn’t paint a favorable picture of Browder … but it also doesn’t do much to resolve Fusion’s entry into the 2016 election. All of this is simply to give Republicans a means of tying Fusion to the same team that was sitting across the table from Donald Trump Jr. in the Trump Tower meeting, because both were ultimately working to resolve the Prevezon Holdings civil suit.
One name that appears which might surprise a lot of people: Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer from the Trump Tower meeting, hired the company that in turn hired Fusion to subcontract on Prevezon. So in a sense, Veselnitskaya was Fusion’s boss’s boss at one point. It’s a small world of tangled-together threads around Russian corruption and crime families.
Simpson goes on to detail measures that Fusion takes to prevent information obtained while working for one client from crossing over into investigations for a different client. And then, finally, their investigation of Trump enters the story on page 62 of the lengthy transcript.
DAVIS: So you had mentioned a few minutes ago that you had done some political or campaign research in the course of the 2016 presidential election and you clarified that that was work related to then Candidate and now President Trump. What can you tell us about that work? Can you just describe it first generally and then I’ll ask you some follow-up.
SIMPSON: It was, broadly speaking, a kind of holistic examination of Donald Trump’s business record and his associations, his bankruptcies, his suppliers, you know, offshore or third-world suppliers of products that he was selling. You know, it evolved somewhat quickly into issues of his relationships to organized crime figures but, you know, really the gamut of Donald Trump.
Simpson then gives a more general view of how they launch an investigation, covering everything from ordering related books on Amazon, to reading old articles and interviews. In the case of Trump, there was a lot to cover, and the subject was not one Simpson had researched in the past.
SIMPSON: I was never very interested in Donald Trump. He was not a serious political figure that I’d ever had any exposure to. He’s a New York figure really.
Simpson is willing to reveal that the Trump research began in October 2015 and was done for someone “with Republican ties” but doesn’t go beyond that point. The task at the time was just “take a general look at Trump.”
That initial research put Simpson on the same trail as everyone else who has looked into Trump’s background.
SIMPSON: In the early — the very first weekend that I started boning up on Donald Trump, you know, I found various references to him having connections to Italian organized crime and later to a Russian organized crime figure named Felix Sater, S-A-T-E-R. It wasn’t hard to find, it wasn’t any great achievement, it was in the New York Times, but as someone who has done a lot of Russian organized crime investigations as a journalist originally that caught my attention and became something that, you know, I focused on while other people looked at other things.
Simpson’s own work at the Wall Street Journal had included a number of stories about Russian oligarchs, organized crime, and corrupt politicians. While he might not have previously researched Trump, he was definitely familiar with Sater.
SIMPSON: As it happens, Felix Sater was, you know, connected to the same Russian crime family that was at issue in the Prevezon case, which is the dominant Russian crime family in Russia and has a robust U.S. presence and is involved in a lot of crime and criminal activity in the United States and for many years was the — the leader of this family was on the FBI most wanted list and lives openly in Moscow as a fugitive from U.S. law for a very elaborate stock fraud.
Simpson discusses Sater’s connections, and the general nature of Russian organized crime as a political/criminal/banking hybrid. The connections between Trump and Sater started Simpson looking into the multiple ties Trump had to Russian organized crime, and from there into the mystery of just where was Donald Trump getting his money.
DAVIS: And what, if anything, did you conclude about the connection between and in the business dealings that then Candidate Trump had had with Mr. Sater?
SIMPSON: Well, somewhat analogous to the Browder situation I found it notable this was something he didn’t want to talk about and testified under oath he wouldn’t know Felix if he ran into him in the street. That was not true. He knew him well and, in fact, continued to associate with him long after he learned of Felix’s organized crime ties. So, you know, that tells you something about somebody.
So I concluded that he was okay with that and that was a troubling thing. I also, you know, began to — I keep saying I, but we as a company began to look at where his money came from and, you know, that raised a lot of questions. We saw indications that some of the money came from Kazakhstan, among other places, and that some of it you just couldn’t account for.
The legal case in which Trump sued a journalist over saying that his wealth was less than Trump had been saying actually played back into Simpson’s investigations. In his testimony on the case, Trump was not only forced admit that he had lied at least 30 times about his wealth, but provided leads that Simpson was able to follow. Simpson found a lot of conflict between the wealth that Trump bragged about personally, and the wealth that he was reporting when he paid taxes. There were a lot of red flags. Despite having filed bankruptcy, Trump was claiming over $1 billion in personal assets. The Trump Organization was valuing its businesses high when it came to Trump’s statements, but dirt cheap when it came to reporting them for taxes. All of it just played into Simpson’s impression that Trump wasn’t being honest either about his personal wealth or his sources of income.
Finally, 76 pages into the transcript, Heather Sawyer, chief oversight counsel for Sen. Feinstein, brings up topics that were ostensibly the reason for the hearing, rather than all the futzing around, looking for ways to attack Fusion, that the Republicans had engaged in to this point.
SAWYER: At a news briefing on August 1, 2017 White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described Fusion GPS as a democratic linked firm. Is that an accurate description?
SIMPSON: I would not agree with that description. …
Simpson describes himself as an independent researcher with a number of both Republican and Democratic clients, as well as saying that Fusion doesn’t hire people with a partisan background.
And finally, Christopher Steele.
SAWYER: So it has been widely reported that you engaged Christopher Steele to do part of the research, the opposition research on Candidate Trump. Is that accurate?
SAWYER: And he was working in that capacity as a subcontractor for you? And when I say “you” here I mean Fusion GPS.
SAWYER: And when did you engage Mr. Steele to conduct opposition research on Candidate Trump?
SIMPSON: I don’t specifically recall, but it would have been in the — it would have been May or June of 2016.
SAWYER: And why did you engage Mr. Steele in May or June of 2016?
SIMPSON: That calls for a somewhat long answer. …
And yes, it did. What Simpson says is that by this point they had collected a large amount of information on Trump and it was time to “drill down” on some specifics. To do that, Fusion GPS hired Steele and other contractors to follow up on issues. That included having someone track down where Trump’s products were built in China and South America, to see if they were made in sweat shop conditions.
Russia wasn’t the focus of their investigation, it was just one focus. And Steele had impeccable credentials for handling that area.
SIMPSON: He was the lead Russianist at MI6 prior to leaving the government and an extremely well-regarded investigator, researcher, and, as I say, we’re friends and share interest in Russian kleptocracy and organized crime issues. I would say that’s broadly why I asked him to see what he could find out about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia.
Steele and Simpson had also worked together in the past as subcontractors on legal cases. Steele’s hiring was related specifically to Trump, and members of Trump’s family, who talked about their trips to Russia. Combined with connections to characters like Sater, it was enough to send Steele off to see what he could find. Steele wasn’t sent in with specific instructions, but like Fusion, was just looking around for Trump’s activities related to Russia.
And the information wasn’t hard to find:
SIMPSON: The thing that people forget about what was going on in June of 2016 was that no one was really focused on sort of this question of whether Donald Trump had a relationship with the Kremlin. So, you know, when Chris started asking around in Moscow about this the information was sitting there. It wasn’t a giant secret.
Once the microphone goes back into the hands of Republicans, the questions related to Trump stop. Once again, the focus is on Fusion’s work for Prevezon and their association with Veselnitskaya—which rather surprisingly includes a dinner the night before Veselnitskaya met with Trump’s campaign at Trump Tower.
DAVIS: It has widely been reported Ms. Veselnitskaya and Mr. Akhmetshin and others met with Donald Trump, Junior, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner on June 9th, 2016. Were you aware of this meeting beforehand?
DAVIS: It didn’t come up at the dinner the night before?
DAVIS: When did you first become aware of the meeting?
SIMPSON. Around the time it broke in the New York Times. I was stunned.
The circular relationship with Veselnitskaya and Fusion, at the same time that Fusion was launching research that included, among other things, reading over Paul Manafort’s activities in Ukraine, certainly leaves plenty of room for potential questions. And that continued to be where the Republicans focused, since it was clear that finding anything out about what Trump or members of his campaign did in connection to Russia were of very low interest.
When Sawyer was back up, questions again returned to Trump and his Russia relationships. One thing that Simpson noted was that they didn’t make any immediate use of Steele’s first memo, specifically because it was of a “personal nature,” and not the kind of thing that was easy to demonstrate in public. Some of the subsequent documents represented efforts to fill out details and provide more concrete information.
But, again, the circular nature of Fusion being hired both by attorneys working for Prevezon and by sources looking for information on Trump, crosses in a very odd way as Steele’s first memo apparently indicates that the Trump Tower meeting—which came in between friendly meetings between Fusion and Veselnitskaya—came at the direction of Putin. According to Simpson, Fusion was unaware of the meeting or its intentions.
Simpson found Steele’s information credible, in large part because of his years of experience working with Steele, and because the information also fit with Simpson’s knowledge of Kremlin hatred for Hillary Clinton. Steele’s second memo focused on the hack of the DNC and Russia’s involvement. At that point, Steele himself wondered if Fusion shouldn’t contact the FBI.
SIMPSON: So he proposed to — he said we should tell the FBI, it’s a national security issue. I didn’t originally agree or disagree, I just put it off and said I needed to think about it. Then he raised it again with me. I don’t remember the exact sequence of these events, but my recollection is that I questioned how we would do that because I don’t know anyone there that I could report something like this to and be believed and I didn’t really think it was necessarily appropriate for me to do that. In any event, he said don’t worry about that, I know the perfect person, I have a contact there, they’ll listen to me, they know who I am, I’ll take care of it. I said okay. You know, I agreed, it’s potentially a crime in progress. So, you know, if we can do that in the most appropriate way, I said it was okay for him to do that.
This conversation at the end of July led to the conversation between the FBI and Steele, but by that point the FBI was already investigating connections between the Trump and Russia campaign because of tips they received from an Australian diplomat.
A factor in Steele’s desire to talk to the FBI was not just concern over Russia offering the hacked emails to Trump, but the mass of personal information on Trump and how it could be used by Russia to blackmail the candidate. Steele’s position was that he was ‘professionally obligated’ by what he saw to talk to authorities.
But that descision to go to the FBI was entirely Steele’s. It wasn’t done either at the request, or against the request of any client.
SAWYER: Did you seek anyone else’s approval for him to go to the FBI?
SAWYER: Did anyone ever encourage you to ask him on to go to the FBI?
SAWYER: Did anyone discourage you from having him go to the FBI?
Which pretty much ends any notion that the FBI investigation was started in response to a partisan effort to affect the outcome of the election, a key talking point for Republicans over the last few weeks. Not only have multiple sources confirmed that the investigation was already underway due to the Papadopoulos connection, but Steele’s visit to the FBI was entirely on his own as a former intelligence officer who came across something he thought needed to be reported.
Which doesn’t mean other people weren’t highly concerned over what they were seeing.
SIMPSON: … as the summer progressed the situation with the hacking of the Democrats and the efforts by the Russians to influence the election and the possibility that the Trump organization was, in fact, doing things to curry favor with the Russians became more and more serious as external developments occurred. So, for instance, they changed the Republican platform, which is addressed in here. Carter Page shows up in Moscow and gives a speech. He’s a campaign advisor and he gives a speech about dropping sanctions. Trump continues to say mysterious things about what a great guy Putin is.
Both Steele and Simpson were aware by the beginning of July that the Russians were behind the hacking, that they have personal information on Trump, and that they’re looking to harm Hillary’s campaign … but the Trump campaign knew all this by May, thanks to Papadopoulos, Manafort, and others.
And then, page 174, contains what’s probably the biggest news of the transcript. As Simpson is explaining what Steele might have said to the FBI …
SIMPSON: You know, my understanding was that they would have gotten into who his sources were, how he knew certain things, and, you know, other details based on their own intelligence. Essentially what he told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.
The feedback from Steele, as filtered through Simpson, is that the FBI had an asset inside the Trump campaign by September 2016—months before the arrest and recruitment of Papadopoulos—and that this resource made the FBI more receptive to the information that Steele was giving them. Including, possibly, the personal information that Russia might use to blackmail Trump.
Simpson refuses to name the source.
SIMPSON: There are some things I know that I just don’t feel comfortable sharing because obviously it’s been in the news a lot lately that people who get in the way of the Russians tend to get hurt.
The FBI source was an independent source within the Trump organization, not someone who had provided information to Steele or anyone else at Fusion. Which is … fascinating.
But Steele’s relationship with the FBI came to an end on Halloween. When this happened …
SIMPSON: On October 31st the New York Times posted a story saying that the FBI is investigating Trump and found no connections to Russia and, you know, it was a real Halloween special. Sometime thereafter the FBI — I understand Chris severed his relationship with the FBI out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI and there was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on. So he stopped dealing with them.
Following on Comey re-opening the case into Clinton’s emails, the New York Times’ “nothing to see here” story was so counter to everything that Steele had passed along to the FBI that he severed his relationship out of concern that Trump or the Russians had actually flipped the FBI. That story—one of the two most important and influential stories of the campaign season—remains completely unsourced and unexplained.
In the face of all this information, Republicans continued their questioning … by continuing to ask for details about Fusion’s work on Prevezon. Their concern through the entire hearing was looking for information they could use against Fusion, Simpson, or Steele, not a single question concerning Trump or the campaign.
After hours of additional questions where Republicans attempt to discover some other connection between Simpson and foreign officials, or some way in which the FBI contributed to the dossier, Davis does at last come to something with an interesting answer. Namely how the dossier entered public view.
SIMPSON: At some point a few weeks after the election Chris called me and said that he had received an inquiry from David Kramer, who was a long-time advisor to Senator McCain.
Fusion shared the information with McCain, who then discussed it with the FBI.
Additional questions followed up on how Fusion had segregated the dossier from their other work, not because they had more doubts, but because it was personal, human intelligence and not like the public source research that accounted for most of their work. According to Simpson, one person related to the Steele dossier has already died.
Simpson insisted that Steele’s information was carefully recorded.
SIMPSON: In British intelligence the methodology’s a little different from American intelligence. There’s a practice of being faithful to what people are saying. So these are relatively straightforward recitations of things that people have said. Obviously as we talked about before, you know, disinformation is an issue that Chris wrestles with, has wrestled with his entire life. So if he believed any of this was disinformation, he would have told us.
Simpson focused considerable attention on Carter Page, whose trip to Moscow and speech in favor of lowering sanctions was seen on both sides of the world as a clear sign of Trump’s willingness to work with Russia.
And a final word on the Republican statements about Fusion …
SAWYER: So in an August 1, 2017 news briefing White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “The Democrat linked firm Fusion GPS actually took money from the Russian government while it created the phoney dossier that’s been the basis for all of the Russia scandal fake news.” What is your response to that statement?
SIMPSON: It’s not true? … Most importantly the allegation that we were working for the Russian government then or ever is simply not true. I don’t know what to say. It’s political rhetoric to call the dossier phoney. The memos are field reports of real interviews that Chris’s network conducted and there’s nothing phony about it. We can argue about what’s prudent and what’s not, but it’s not a fabrication.