- The top Democratic senator on the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday released the transcript of the committee's interview with Glenn Simpson, the cofounder of the firm that produced the so-called Trump-Russia dossier.
- The interview transcript revealed that the dossier's author cut ties with the FBI because he believed the bureau was being "manipulated" by President Donald Trump.
- There was a heated partisan debate over the transcript's release.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Tuesday released the full transcript of the committee's interview with the cofounder of the firm that produced the collection of memos outlining alleged collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia before the 2016 US election.
The Fusion GPS cofounder, Glenn Simpson, said in the transcript that the opposition research dossier's author went to the FBI in July 2016 when he became worried that Trump, then a candidate, was being blackmailed. Simpson said Christopher Steele, a former British spy, cut ties with the FBI amid concerns it was being "manipulated" by Trump.
"Chris said he was very concerned about whether this represented a national security threat and said he wanted to — he said he thought we were obligated to tell someone in government, in our government, about this information," Simpson said. "He thought from his perspective there was an issue — a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed."
Feinstein's decision to release the transcript unilaterally came after weeks of back and forth between the committee and Fusion GPS, whose founders advocated its release in a recent op-ed article in The New York Times.
The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, said on Monday that he was not planning to release the 312-page transcript yet. He said in August that the committee would vote on whether to do so, but that vote never came to fruition.
Grassley and his Republican colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham, surprised Democrats on Friday when by referring Steele to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.
"After speaking with majority and minority committee staff for 10 hours, Glenn Simpson requested the transcript of his interview be released publicly," Feinstein said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The American people deserve the opportunity to see what he said and judge for themselves," she continued. "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. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public."
Fusion said in a statement: "Fusion GPS commends Sen. Feinstein for her courage. The transcript of Glenn Simpson's lengthy responses to the Senate Judiciary Committee's questioning speaks for itself."
Grassley was furious.
"It's totally confounding that Senator Feinstein would unilaterally release a transcript of a witness interview in the middle" of an investigation, he told CNN's Manu Raju.
A security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed
Simpson said Steele first spoke with an FBI contact in Rome about his findings in late June or early July, shortly after writing his first memo.
That memo said that Trump had been cultivated by Russian officials "for at least five years," that the Kremlin had compromising material related to "sexually perverted acts" he performed at a Moscow Ritz Carlton, and that his inner circle was regularly accepting intelligence on Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, from the Kremlin.
The flow of intelligence, Steele's sources told him, was being facilitated by Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign manager. Manafort was using Carter Page as the "liaison" between the campaign and the Kremlin, the dossier said.
Steele "said he was professionally obligated" to report those findings to the FBI, according to Simpson.
"Like, if you're a lawyer and, you know, you find out about a crime, in a lot of countries you must report that," Simpson said. "So it was like that. So I just said if that's your obligation, then you should fulfill your obligation."
Simpson said Steele thought there was "a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed."
"From my perspective, there was a law enforcement issue about whether there was an illegal conspiracy to violate the campaign laws, and then somewhere in this time the whole issue of hacking has also surfaced," Simpson said.
He said later: "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 OK for him to do that."
The FBI called Steele back in September and asked him to tell it everything he knew, Simpson said, because it had obtained information from "a human source from inside the Trump Organization" who "was concerned about the same concerns we had" and spoke to the bureau on a "voluntary" basis.
The FBI had in July 2016 opened a counterintelligence investigation into Russia interference in the election, James Comey, the former FBI director, testified in March 2017. But it is not clear whether the bureau told Steele about the ongoing investigation when agents sat down with him in September.
"It was someone like us who decided to pick up the phone and report something," Simpson said. He added later that he did not know whether the source came from inside the Trump Organization or from the campaign.
A source close to Fusion told Business Insider on Tuesday that Simpson did not know when he testified who the "human source" was.
The FBI's source turned out to be an Australian diplomat who had reported comments made by George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser, one evening in May 2016.
Papadopoulos told the diplomat that the Russians had dirt on Clinton in the form of emails. When the Democratic National Committee was hacked later that summer, the Australians put two and two together and told the US government.
Simpson said Steele "stopped dealing" with the FBI after The Times reported in October 2016 that the FBI had found no clear links between Trump and Russia. Steele was also irked by the letter Comey sent to Congress on October 28 announcing the reopening of the bureau's investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state.
"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," Simpson said. "So it made a lot of people, including us, concerned about what the heck was going on at the FBI."
Simpson called the Times article, published on October 31, "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," Simpson said. "So he stopped dealing with them."
Somebodys already been killed
Simpson attended the voluntary interview in August with his lawyer, Josh Levy, and gave extensive responses to questions ranging from how he became involved in the Trump opposition-research project — initially funded by the wealthy Republican donor Paul Singer and later picked up by Democrats — to his longtime relationship with Steele.
Asked at one point to describe how he went about vetting Steele's sources, however, Simpson declined.
"It's a voluntary interview, and in addition to that, he wants to be very careful to protect his sources," Levy said. "Somebody's already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier, and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work."
Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, said the mandate at first was not centered on Trump's ties to Russia.
"We also conducted a much broader sort of look at his entire career and his overseas investments in places like Europe and Latin America," Simpson said. "You know, it wasn't really a Russia-focused investigation for the first half of it."
Simpson said he and his colleagues ordered every book about Trump they could find on Amazon to ensure they were not duplicating already reported information. Much — if not all — of their initial research focused on Trump's financial history.
They were particularly struck by Trump's ties to people with links to Russian organized crime, including a former business associate named Felix Sater.
"We looked at the bankruptcies, how could somebody go through so many bankruptcies, you know, and still have a billion dollars in personal assets," Simpson said.
Ultimately, Fusion became interested in what Trump had done on his trips to Russia. That's when Simpson called up Steele, whom he had known and worked with since 2009.
"We said, 'See if you can find out what Donald Trump's been doing on these trips to Russia,'" Simpson said. "Since Chris and I worked together over the years, there's a lot that didn't need to be said."
"That would include who is he doing business with, which hotels does he like to stay at, you know, did anyone ever offer him anything, you know, the standard sort of things you would look at," he continued. "I don't think I gave him any specific instructions beyond the general 'find out what he was up to.'"
Simpson described Steele as "basically a Boy Scout."
"He worked for the government for a very long time," Simpson said. "He lives a very modest, quiet life, and, you know, this is his specialty."
Asked about the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' accusation that Fusion was a "Democrat-linked firm" that "took money from the Russian government" and produced a "phony dossier," Simpson said, "It's a false allegation."
"It's political rhetoric to call the dossier phony," Simpson said. "The memos are field reports of real interviews that Chris' 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."
Simpson also answered questions about Fusion's work with the American law firm BakerHostetler, which was hired to represent a Russian holding company based in Cyprus called Prevezon that the US government accused of laundering stolen cash into New York City real estate.
Prevezon was also represented at the time by a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with the Trump campaign in June 2016 at Trump Tower.
Simpson said Fusion's work with BakerHostetler and Steele were unrelated and that he did not know about the Trump Tower meeting at the time.