This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.
Last week, Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley made a criminal referral to the FBI, asking the feds to investigate former British spy Christoper Steele, who contracted with Fusion GPS to investigate the Trump camp’s ties to Russia in 2016. Also last week, the former journalists behind Fusion GPS asked the Senate to release the transcript of Fusion founder Glenn Simpson’s interview with the Judiciary Committee—which includes a lot of conversation of Steele’s work—but Grassley refused. So, yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein released it herself (read it here). It’s long but important.
- First, the context: Fusion’s research into Trump was funded first by a conservative site that supported another Republican for president and then by the Clinton campaign, a fact that has made it quite the political football. The so-called Steele dossier that research produced contained a number of salacious allegations, including one involving golden showers and Russian hookers. It was published by Buzzfeed last year (more on that in a second). Republicans have argued that this political oppo research (which wasn’t publicly disseminated until after the campaign) was the basis for the FBI’s investigation into collusion, and as such the investigation itself is suspect. But the transcript hardly suggests a political hit job; rather, it paints the picture of Steele as a researcher who became concerned that a potential president of the United States was compromised by a geopolitical foe.
- NYT: “The interview, with Glenn R. Simpson of Fusion GPS, provided few revelatory details about the firm’s findings on the Russian election effort or on President Trump and his campaign. But both the circumstances of its release and the vivid picture it paints of Mr. Simpson’s operation and his chief Russia investigator, Christopher Steele, provided fresh ammunition to both sides of a growing fight over the dossier. In his testimony, Mr. Simpson sought to portray himself as an astute researcher well versed in the Russian government and that country’s organized crime. And he said Mr. Steele, the former British spy he hired to investigate the campaign’s ties to Russia, had ‘a Sterling reputation as a person who doesn’t exaggerate, doesn’t make things up, doesn’t sell baloney.’ Mr. Steele believed that his investigation had unearthed ‘a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed,’ Mr. Simpson told the committee.”
- Some key points, from WaPo: “Ultimately, the dossier claimed Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, something Trump has vigorously denied but also something neither special counsel Robert S. Mueller III nor Congress
- “Researchers weren’t expecting to find what they did: The research started as open-ended, but as they uncovered more about Trump’s alleged connections to Russia, Simpson said, he and former British spy Christopher Steele, whom Simpson hired to do the research, made a decision to go to the FBI.”
- “There may have been a whistleblower in the Trump campaign: This is the biggest headline from 10 hours of interviews. Simpson says Steele told him that the FBI had ‘other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source,’ someone ‘inside the Trump organization.’” However, an NBC correspondent says the FBI didn’t actually have a walk-in source, but rather this was a reference to an Australian diplomat who heard a drunken Trump aide boasting about the Russian hack that got garbled in translation.
- “Some news events have corroborated the memo’s findings: Simpson points out that Steele’s memo alleged members of the Trump campaign were eager to hear information from Russia. A year later, Trump Jr. released emails suggesting as much, when he said, ‘If it’s what you say I love it’ to correspondence indicating that Russians had dirt on Clinton. The dossier also identified former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page as a potential intermediary between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Washington Post reported in April that Page was wiretapped by the FBI during the campaign, suggesting it had reason to believe Page was in contact with the Russians while he worked for Trump.”
- “The FBI indicated it believed some of what was in the memos: After Steele and Simpson called the FBI to report that they had reason to believe the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia, Simpson said, the FBI asked Steele to share everything. A couple months after Steele gave the FBI a full briefing, the FBI said that it believed him, according to Simpson.”
- But Steele cut off his talks with the FBI in October, after The New York Times—which, mind you, was in full Hillary-emails hysteria at the time—published a bogus story saying the FBI didn’t see any connection between the Trump camp and Russia. From Simpson: “There was some sort of interaction, I think it was probably telephonic that occurred after Director Comey sent his letter to Congress reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. That episode, you know, obviously created some concern that the FBI was intervening in a political campaign in contravention of long-standing Justice Department regulation. So it made a lot of people, including us, concerned about what the heck was going on at the FBI. So, you know, we began getting questions from the press about, you know, whether they were also investigating Trump and, you know, we encouraged them to ask the FBI that question. You know, I think—I’m not sure we’ve covered this fully, but, you know, we just encouraged them to ask the FBI that question. 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.”
WHAT IT MEANS: A couple of takeaways:
- One, the release doesn’t likely change the state of play, other than making the Republicans’ attempt to portray Fusion GPS as composed of Democratic hacks look foolish. (There’s a reason Grassley and company wanted to keep this secret.) The Republicans will still try to muddy the waters, arguing that Democrats campaign funded questionable research to weaken Trump and thus the special counsel investigation is tainted. As NPR notes: “Nothing about Simpson’s testimony will deflect the campaign of derision directed by Republicans against a Justice Department and FBI they call “biased” on behalf of Hillary Clinton and against Trump.”
- Two, accept the dossier for what it is: raw, unfiltered intelligence. Some of it is wrong. Some of it is rooted in truth. But what Steele—an experienced spy who knows Russian tactics as well as anyone—saw in that raw intelligence convinced him that something pernicious was afoot, and he alerted the FBI. (And cooperated with the FBI until FBI agents fed the NYT false info a week before the election stating that Trump wasn’t under suspicion.) Which is to say, the allegations made therein should absolutely be taken seriously.
- Three: The White House claims that all of this is fake news are crumbling. Was there collusion between people in his orbit and Russian intelligence? It sure looks that way, by any definition—see Don Jr.’s meeting in Trump Tower—even if Trump didn’t know about it or want to know about it. And if you accept that there is a there there, then that makes Republican efforts to shift blame and protect the president all the more troubling.
Related:One of Steele’s sources has apparently been killed. [ThinkProgress]
Related:Longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is suing Fusion GPS and Buzzfeed over the publication of the Steele dossier.