Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a semi-redacted transcript of testimony Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017. Simpson had called for release of the testimony in a New York Times op-ed proclaiming the importance of transparency. Simpson and other Fusion GPS principals have resisted invitations to testify from the committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. When faced with a subpoena, Simpson used his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to negotiate for a closed-door interview in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The transcript of the testimony runs 312 pages. Feinstein excluded exhibits that were attached to the testimony and redacted highly relevant information about which FBI agents were working with Clinton-funded operatives to investigate the Trump campaign.
During the testimony, staff for Republican chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley alternated with staff for ranking member Feinstein, each group taking one hour at a time. The two followed different paths of questions. Republicans drilled down on Fusion GPS’s work for Russian company Prevezon Holdings before discussing the work on the Russia dossier. Democrats focused on the contents of the dossier before asking about other Russian contacts.
Fusion GPS is facing scrutiny about whether its work for Prevezon violated federal requirements to register as a foreign agent, whether people mentioned in the unverified and salacious dossier were defamed, and all sorts of unanswered questions about its work creating the dossier on behalf of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
In his testimony, Simpson didn’t answer or carefully answered questions covering areas where he’s legally vulnerable while also defending the dossier product he commissioned. Here are key takeaways.
1. The Most Interesting Part Turned Out Not To Be True
While the testimony is full of details, far and away the most interesting revelation was Simpson’s claim that the FBI had a source within the Trump campaign. Simpson said that Christopher Steele, the freelance spy paid for dispatches about Trump, was told by an FBI official that they had a confidential informant in the Trump campaign. This “human source from inside the Trump organization” was acting in a “voluntary” manner. It was someone “who decided to pick up the phone and report something.”
Understandably, that was the big headline many media outlets put with their initial stories on the transcript, including USA Today: “Dossier author Christopher Steele told FBI had source inside Trump Org” and the Washington Post: “Ex-spy behind Trump dossier was told FBI had source inside network, testimony reveals.” The only problem is that it apparently is not true.
Ken Dilanian, the NBC reporter who frequently helps Fusion GPS disseminate stories for its clients, said that “a source close to Fusion GPS” had a correction to offer:
While Simpson used his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to negotiate an interview that was not done under oath, it’s still a federal crime to give the committee false information. It is unclear if he corrected the false testimony with the committee or just worked through his collaborator Dilanian.
2. The Substance Of The Dossier Was Not Verified By Fusion GPS
Sometimes the dossier contained publicly known information, such as Carter Page’s trip to Moscow, or Vladimir Putin’s well-known dislike of Hillary Clinton. As for the salacious and substantive claims of collusion between Donald Trump and Russia, they remain salacious and unverified.
In their testimony on the Hill, various FBI officials have been unable or unwilling to cite anything that was verified from the dossier other than the Page trip or Russian animosity toward Clinton. The creator of the dossier himself told a British court that the information he collected was “unverified.” In his testimony, Simpson says his confidence in the dossier is based on his confidence in Steele, who he says has a history of providing good information.
He says that unlike actual evidence that can be introduced in a court of law, the gossip Steele provided is different. “So by its very nature the question of whether something is accurate isn’t really asked. The question that is asked generally is whether it’s credible,” he says. “You don’t really decide who’s telling the truth.”
When Simpson talks about having Sen. John McCain share the document with FBI leadership after the election, he still doesn’t know if it’s accurate, explaining, “we just wanted people in official positions to ascertain whether it was accurate or not.”
3. The Impetus For Going to the FBI Turned Out To Be Disinformation Or Misinformation
Another interesting tidbit from Simpson is that Steele contacted the FBI because of his belief that Russians had a compromising tape of Trump in a hotel room, referring to the dossier’s allegation that Trump had prostitutes urinate on a bed that President and Michelle Obama had slept on in the Ritz Carleton in Moscow. Amazingly, Simpson reveals this shortly after saying that Steele is a professional at knowing when he’s getting disinformation from a source. But not only is there no evidence that Russians have such a tape, or that such a tape would have any value against known perv Trump in any case, there’s substantial evidence that Steele was the victim of misinformation at best, if not disinformation.
The single most famous and salacious vignette from the dossier is this “golden shower” scene in the hotel room during a 2013 trip to Moscow. Yet this summer, President Trump’s longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller told congressional investigators that on that trip someone offered to send five women to Trump’s hotel room. Schiller said he took it as a joke, and declined. He also testified that he told Trump about it when he escorted him back to his hotel room and that the two had a laugh. From this nugget of reality was spun a pornographic and difficult to believe scene of Trump using prostitutes to defile the Obama hotel bed.
The reality of the scene versus the unverified dossier’s version of events speaks to the credibility of everything that’s in the dossier. It also speaks to Steele’s ability to discern fact from fiction, and good intelligence from getting played. For that matter, it speaks to Simpson’s judgment about the quality of his researchers.
Yet when congressional investigators asked Simpson if Steele would know if he were being fed false information, Simpson is vehement. He says, “a trained intelligence officer can spot disinformation that you or I might not recognize, certainly that was Chris’s skill, and he honed in on this issue of blackmail as being a significant national security issue.”
4. The Dossier Author Was In a Relationship With The FBI
This has already been reported extensively, but Steele was sharing information with the FBI. As mentioned above, he immediately took the fantastical sex scene from his first dispatch to the FBI. Simpson details how that happened, asserting over and over that he had nothing to do with going to the FBI with the opposition research he was commissioned to produce for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. He says that Steele said of the FBI, “they want everything I have.”
Simpson says that the FBI paid for Steele to travel to Rome to share the information, and that they talked about a further financial relationship that didn’t come to fruition. Simpson does reveal that the FBI was also sharing information with Steele. As mentioned in the first point above, the FBI told him they had a source who was corroborating their salacious allegations. It is unclear whether the FBI official was wittingly or unwittingly sharing FBI intelligence with someone being paid by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Simpson also reveals that he told media outlets that the FBI and Steele were working together. He told congressional investigators that he viewed Steele’s chats with the FBI to be separate from the work he was hired to do by Clinton and the DNC. However, he did admit to highlighting the fact that Steele had interacted with the FBI when he was selling journalists on the dossier before the election.
It’s also worth noting that Congress was briefed on the contents of the dossier during the campaign by the FBI, not Steele or Fusion GPS. That’s according to a Fusion GPS-sourced story in September 2016 by Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News. The relationship between the FBI and Steele, based on unverified information, was serious.
5. Russia Is Either Good Or Bad, Depending
Sometimes when Simpson is speaking about Russia, such as when discussing why he was investigating Trump’s ties there, he is unsparing. Simpsons says, “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.” He says he’s well-versed on Putin’s consolidation of power.
But the other part of the testimony is about his work for Prevezon Holdings, a firm owned by the son of Pyotr Katsyv, a powerful Russian government official. It battled with the U.S. government over its handling of some of its money, settling a few months ago. Fusion GPS was tasked with digging up dirt on Bill Browder, a businessman who launched an international campaign for sanctions against Russia.
One of the key figures in the testimony is Natalia Veselnitskaya. She figures in both the questions about Prevezon, and the questions about the dossier. First, let’s look at how Simpson describes the infamous meeting Veselnitskaya had with members of the Trump campaign at Trump Tower in June. He first cites the dossier claim that Trump and his inner circle have “accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his democratic and other political rivals.” Then he cites the Trump Tower meeting where Veselnitskaya was supposed to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton as proof of this:
So the issue with the Trump Tower meeting, as I understand it, is that the Trump people were eager to accept intelligence from a foreign government about their political rivals and that is, you know, I would say, a form of interference. If you’re getting help from a foreign government and your help is intelligence, then the foreign government’s interfering. I mean, you know, I think that also — of course, in retrospect we now know this was pretty right on target in terms on what [the dossier] says.
But when Simpson is talking about Prevezon, it’s entirely different. Asked about Veselnitskaya, Prevezon’s lawyer, he admits that she hired Baker Hostetler, which hired him. He acknowledges connecting Baker Hostetler with his former colleague Chris Cooper, who made a film to help fight the sanctions against Russia. He acknowledges meeting with all sorts of people who are lobbying to remove the sanctions against Russia. And he admits that his work was to find dirt on Browder, the man behind the sanctions against Russia. When asked if he understood who his work benefited, he says, “We did not believe that was being done on behalf of the Russian government.”
If Trump campaign officials meeting with Veselnitskaya was improper and treasonous, one wonders what working for Veselnitskaya is.
6. Despite Knowing Everyone At Trump Tower Meeting, Claims No Knowledge
In his testimony, Simpson says he had no idea that Veselnitskaya was going to meet with Trump, despite meeting with her both shortly before and shortly after the meeting. He tells investigators that some of Paul Manafort’s notes from the meeting “touch on things that I worked on” on behalf of Prevezon, but that he didn’t realize she was going to talk about it with them. And he acknowledges that he either worked with or knows of four attendees at the meeting: Irakle Kaveladze, Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, and Anatoli Samochornov. The last one also worked on the Prevezon case.
7. Simpson Misleads About Democratic Ties
In the lengthy testimony, Simpson skates in and out of privilege to share the content of the research he works on for clients. But when asked for specifics, or about the marketing of his work, he frequently declined to answer questions. He declined to answer dozens of questions, such as “Did you share that decision with anyone, that [Steele] was going to go to the FBI with this information?” and “Did Fusion disclose hard copies of the memoranda to any journalists?” and “Did Mr. Steele ever share with you who his sources were?”
At the time of his testimony, Fusion GPS was still fighting congressional requests to find out who paid for the opposition research on Trump. It turned out to be Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. His clients were literally the DNC and their nominee for president. Yet when asked if he had ties to Democrats, he denied it.
Q. 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?…
A. I would not agree with that description.
I’ll add one more thing to the response to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, which is her assertion that we are a Democrat linked opposition research firm. I think I addressed this earlier, but to be clear, we don’t have a business of — we’re not an appendage to the Democratic party.
8. Fusion Pushed Dossier During Campaign
One of the things that has helped Fusion GPS escape scrutiny or tough stories is the role they play in supplying stories to reporters around town. Simpson’s testimony frequently characterizes the relationship as if reporters come to him seeking information that he then shares. But asked if Fusion GPS’s business involves getting media outlets to publish stories, he says it is.
Some people believed that since the dossier was not published until January 2017, it was not used during the campaign. Simpsons says otherwise. He says part of the purpose of being hired for opposition research was to share information with journalists. He says, “some of it was gathered for the possibility that it might be useful to the press.”
And he says he did share it with the press. “I had spoken with reporters over the course of the summer and through the fall about the investigations by the government and the controversy over connections between — alleged connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Some of what we discussed was informed by Chris’s reporting.”
Simpson discusses briefing reporters from The New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, The New Yorker, and others in both September and October of 2016. Simpson says the FBI was displeased with the chats with the media. “I remember Chris saying at some point that they were upset with media coverage of some of the issues that he had discussed with him.”
9. Journalistic Retaliation
Simpson says he was deeply concerned by FBI Director James Comey’s letter announcing a reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of classified information. He says he had been asking reporters or encouraging reporters to ask the FBI about whether they were investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. It backfired.
On October 31, The New York Times published its report saying the FBI had found no problematic ties between Trump and Russia. “[I]t was a real Halloween special,” he said. Court filings say Steele briefed a reporter from Mother Jones on the contents of the dossier in late October. Late in the evening of October 31, David Corn published a piece at Mother Jones titled: “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump: Has the bureau investigated this material?”
Simpson also says Steele severed his relationship with the FBI at that point, “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.”
He also says Steele told him the FBI “mentioned that they didn’t like media coverage, that there was media coverage of, you know, FBI interest in Donald Trump. I don’t know what it was that they didn’t like.”
10. What Was Feinstein Thinking?
The testimony included interesting information about the dossier and the FBI’s handling of it. (As well as a claim someone had been killed over the dossier!) Despite Simpson’s refusal to answer many questions, it helps explain how opposition research gets into the mainstream media. And transparency is always nice.
But for a committee that had worked fairly well in a bipartisan manner, Feinstein’s decision to unilaterally release testimony against the wishes of the majority in the middle of an ongoing investigation was a curious one.
She may have been upset with her colleagues Grassley and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for not consulting her before making a criminal referral for Steele on the basis of false statements to federal authorities. But the committee still has to interview Jared Kushner, who may now consult Simpson’s testimony. If committees are simply deciding to be more transparent, the House faced a request to declassify information related to the dossier’s use by the FBI.