Earlier this week Sen. Dianne Feinstein released a partially redacted transcript of Glenn Simpson’s Aug. 22, 2017 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that just last week Simpson himself, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications firm Fusion GPS that assembled and distributed the now notorious anti-Trump dossier, wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for Republican members of the committee to release his testimony.
Feinstein said at first that she was pressured to release the document. Now she says she wasn’t, and her statement was misunderstood. The mix-up adds further confusion as to who thought it advisable to subject the origins of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative to more light. It discloses no further information to verify the research of Fusion GPS contractor Christopher Steele, the former British spy whose byline was used to promote the dossier as an “intelligence” product, rather than as opposition research for hire. Rather, the transcript raises some serious questions about the former MI6 officer who Feinstein’s committee colleagues Senators Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham referred to the Justice Department for a criminal probe last week.
The release of the Simpson transcript is the latest salvo in a campaign of bare-knuckled political warfare that began when reports of Donald Trump’s sub rosa ties to Vladimir Putin first surfaced before the 2016 election. At that time, most of the press refrained from publishing articles sourced to a dossier that former FBI director James Comey called “salacious and unverified” and which the reliably liberal New York Times refused to touch. Those opinions changed abruptly after Trump won, as the result of what looks increasingly like a coordinated campaign involving outgoing Obama administration officials who leaked carefully chosen bits of classified information to a credulous press corps that had become used to printing handouts from the good guys and was especially eager to #Resist Trump.
With Russia-related “news reports” dominating the headlines, ending the career of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and setting the cash registers of media outlets like CNN and the Washington Post on tilt for the first time since America learned to use Google, it appeared that the Trump collusion narrative was a wild success. The Democrats were running the table on the GOP, with an eye to using the dossier as an instrument to impeach Trump should they retake the House in 2018.
But the last few weeks, Congressional and Senate Republicans, few of whom seem particularly enamored of Trump himself, are starting to push back, signaling their willingness to enforce established laws that prohibit activities like leaking intelligence intercepts for domestic partisan political purposes and lying to Congress. The back and forth has left partisans on both sides loathe to turn away lest they miss the latest update from CNN, MSNBC, or FOX, at the same time as outlets that basked for the past year in the non-stop attention of viewers—and the open checkbooks of advertisers—are suddenly worried about what happens if the biggest story since O.J. turns out to be a big lie.
Consider, for instance, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti. In April 2017, his byline appeared on a story reporting that the starting point for the FBI probe into Donald Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia was a trip that a fringe Trump adviser named Carter Page made to Moscow in July 2016. Yet a few weeks ago, Mazzetti was bylined on another story that effectively retracts the earlier one. The FBI investigation didn’t begin with this Trump campaign hanger-on—oh, no. Rather, it started with a different Trump campaign hanger-on.
Yes, after a year of wall-to-wall reporting inspired by or based on charges in the Steele dossier, the New York Times broke a story right before New Year’s Eve—a traditional dumping ground for bad news—stating that the FBI’s Russia investigation into the Trump campaign in fact had nothing to do with “a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by [the Clinton] campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies” that kicked off the probe. According to the Times’ switcheroo, the origin point of the Trump-Russia investigation was a boozy May 2016 evening in a London bar where a 28-year-old Trump campaign aide named George Papadopoulos boasted to an Australian diplomat that “Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.”
Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch’s op-ed in the Times supported the new revised version of Russiagate holding that it’s not about the work that originated with their firm. “We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian meddling,” they wrote.
It’s not hard to see why the Times, which rejected the dossier before embracing it, is now backing off the dossier again. For all of the newsprint and air-time used to push the dossier for 14 months, nothing that hadn’t already been publicly reported prior to the 2016 campaign has panned out, nor have any of the accusations regarding Trump. There is also the fact dossier may have been used to secure a FISA warrant to spy on Trump’s associates, and therefore on the candidate himself, which would be a political scandal of a magnitude likely to transcend partisan divides.
For if the FBI and Department of Justice used a piece of opposition research paid for by a political campaign as evidence for a warrant to intercept the communications of a rival campaign—and the questions asked by congressional investigators suggest they did—then we are now living in a very different America than the one that generations of civil libertarians and small-government conservatives alike desired to maintain, and which large majorities in Congress have repeatedly voted for. The DOJ, the FBI and perhaps the CIA would be embroiled in a scandal likely to have long-lasting and sweeping consequences for intelligence collection, national security, and the safety and privacy of American citizens, to say nothing of how it will demoralize federal law enforcement, which will appear to be mired in partisanship and political corruption.
Even more disconcerting is the increasing likelihood that the Steele dossier was used as a platform for a Russian information operation, which successfully managed to leverage nearly the entire American press corps and sections of the security bureaucracy toward the goal of encouraging Americans to rip their own country apart.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Christopher Steele, a British patriot who rightly recognized post-Soviet Russia as a threat to the West, and who devoted much of his career to understanding the dangers of a Mafia-like leadership with enough energy resources to influence, if not destabilize, his own country and all of Europe. The terrible irony is that Steele’s career is riddled with apparent lapses when it comes to understanding his enemy’s behavior and methods. As reported by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Steele’s cover was blown in 1999, which made it impossible for him to return to Russia. He was then put in charge of the Russia desk in London, where FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in a restaurant in 2006. A former CIA officer reported that Steele was Litvinenko’s handler.
Now it is likely that Steele’s name will be remembered not for helping to root out high-level Russian assets in the Trump White House, perhaps including the president—but rather as a byline-for-hire on a Russian disinformation campaign.
Simpson explains in his testimony that as a “Russianist” Steele knew how to recognize disinformation. “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.”
Maybe. But Simpson’s assertion is premised on the idea that Steele was responsible for everything that went into the dossier, or that he was indeed the author.
I recently reported that the dossier’s passages regarding former Trump convention campaign manager Paul Manafort were likely sourced to Simpson’s own reporting. In one Wall Street Journal article from 2007 and another from 2008, Simpson, and his wife Mary Jacoby, detail Manafort’s work on behalf of former Ukrainian president, and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovich. The corrupt nature of the Manafort-Yanukovich relationship is a key theme in the dossier—and the foundation of special counselor Robert Mueller’s October indictment of Manafort.
Simpson, in his recently released testimony, seems to confirm he was at least a co-contributor to the Manafort sections. A congressional investigator asks Simpson if it’s “fair to characterize the research” he was doing “as kind of a separate track of research on the same topic” Steele was researching.
“I wouldn’t say it was completely separate,” says Simpson, “because, for instance, on some subjects I knew more than Chris. So when it comes to Paul Manafort, he’s a long-time U.S. political figure about whom I know a lot. But his reporting—you know, so there may have been some bleed between things I told him about someone like Manafort.”
If there was “bleeding” on the subject of Manafort, it is reasonable to conclude that there was “bleeding” elsewhere, too. Maybe some of the research or information in the dossier was material that Simpson, unlike Steele, wouldn’t have recognized as disinformation targeting the Trump campaign.
It’s useful in that case to look more closely at the central figure in Fusion GPS’s other Russia-related project, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower June 9, 2016. The Trump circle agreed to meet with her because an intermediary explained that she had dirt on Hillary Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it,” responded the president’s elder son.
And yet as Trump Jr. later explained, Veselnitskaya had nothing to offer regarding his father’s campaign rival—that was just a come-on. Instead, she wanted to talk about the Magnitsky Act, the U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russian officials and others implicated in the detention and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant who was hired in 2007 by Chicago-born financier William Browder to investigate the misappropriation of $230 million in taxes his company had paid to the Russian government. For his troubles, Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and was found dead a year later in a Moscow jail cell.
In response, Browder became the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, passed in 2012, which made Putin himself potentially subject to sanctions, and it further showed that the Russian president could no longer promise regime figures impunity for their crimes. Thus, repealing the Magnitsky Act became one of Russia’s, and Putin’s, key foreign policy goals.
Natalia Veselnitskaya was a key Kremlin instrument for undoing the Magnitsky Act. She represented Prevezon, a Russian holding company, in its defense against Justice Department allegations that it laundered money stolen in the fraud that Magnitsky had uncovered. In Washington she worked with a colleagues in the anti-Magnitsky campaign, including the Russian-American lobbyist, and former Soviet military intelligence officer, Rinat Akmetshin, who was also part of the team that met with Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort in Trump Tower in June 2016. Veselnitskaya also hired an American law firm, Baker Hostetler, which brought on Fusion GPS, say sources, “to get out Russia’s narrative about Browder and Magnitsky.”
Thus, for the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya had no dirt on Clinton, but plenty on Browder, provided by Fusion GPS in talking points she’d previously rehearsed with Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika. As Veselnitskaya told NBC, “I was in effect, the primary source of this information for the Russian Prosecutor General’s office.”
In reference to Fusion GPS’s work on the anti-Magnitsky campaign, Simpson said in his August testimony “that the allegation that we were working for the Russian government then or ever is simply not true.” However, their product on behalf of Russian state interests wound up on the desk of a high-level Russian government official who was nominated to his position by Vladimir Putin. Veselnitskaya liaised with Chaika on the anti-Magnitsky campaign while serving as a point of contact with Fusion GPS. And it appears that information may have flowed the other way, too.
The intermediary who set up the Trump Tower meeting was British publicist Rob Goldstone. “Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote Trump Jr. by way of introducing Veselnitskaya.
Emin Agalarov is an Azerbaijani pop star and businessman, who along with his father Aras had facilitated the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow, where then-owner of the Miss Universe pageant Donald Trump was in attendance. According to CNN, a friend of Emin Agalarov’s wanted to send five prostitutes to Trump’s hotel room. In testimony this November, Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller said that he declined the offer and later shared a laugh with his boss when he told him about it. This episode was the premise for the Steele dossier’s infamous golden shower incident, where Trump supposedly hired prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed once slept in by Barack Obama.
Last year a Wall Street Journal article claimed that Steele’s source for this information was Sergei Millian, a “Belarus-born head of a Russian-American business group.” According to this account, Millian didn’t tell Steele directly. “Rather,” writes the Journal, “his statements about the Trump-Russia relationship were relayed by at least one third party to the British ex-spy who prepared the dossier.”
Acquaintances call Millian a self-promoter and opportunist—much like the other two-bit players tagged as masterminds of the Trump-Russia relationship, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, who Millian was reportedly in contact with during the campaign. Millian said he had nothing to do with Steele’s story, calling it a “blatant lie.”
As even its defenders admit, the Steele dossier is not an official intelligence report, subjected to rigorous questions and cross-examinations before it is submitted to high-level government officials to inform their decisions on matters of life and death. Without a rigid hierarchical process comprising many layers of intelligence professionals that is designed to disprove information, even the most talented spy, as many say Steele is, is simply another reporter out in the field, especially when the information he is gathering is all second and third-hand.
The problem with the Millian story isn’t just the unknown nature of the sourcing. Nor is it the number of people the account had to pass through like a game of telephone before it wound up in the dossier—from Millian to an associate, and then maybe to another third party through whom it finally reached Steele, who without an institutional framework, like an intelligence agency, would likely have trouble vetting information, especially since he hadn’t been in Moscow for nearly a quarter of a century.
There’s a much simpler way to explain how the golden shower incident wound up in the dossier. Emin Agalarov or his father Aras gave the story about the prostitutes to the same emissary they were sending to Trump Tower—Natalia Veselnitskaya. She gave it directly to Simpson. Someone embellished it along the line.
Here’s what Goldstone wrote in setting up the Trump Tower meeting: “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with [Emin’s] father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
There is no Crown prosecutor in Russia—the Brit is referring to the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika. Aras Agalarov is his friend—he bought ads in a Russian paper to defend him and his family when they were accused of corruption. Now Aras Agalarov is hanging out with his pal Chaika, who is supervising the anti-Magnitzky campaign from the Kremlin while Veselnitskaya was out in the field with the American team in her pay, Fusion GPS. Your guys want dirt on Trump and Russia? Ok, Aras has some story about the whores sent to his hotel room in 2013. In other words, the dirt in the Steele Dossier was put there by Russia, for the purpose of ridiculing and undermining Donald Trump, at the same time as Russians sought to embarrass Hillary Clinton by distributing emails stolen from her campaign.
Reportedly, Steele didn’t expect the dossier to be published. Maybe that’s why he went into hiding after he was named as the author. Maybe he hadn’t even read the entire document until Buzzfeed published it last January. Whether Steele is the author or not, the former British spy who spent his professional life unearthing Russian threats to the West now has his name on what seems increasingly likely to have been a platform for Russian disinformation.
Simpson’s testimony shows that the Senate Judiciary Committee is alert to the likelihood that information on Fusion’s two Russia-related jobs may have flowed in both directions. “Was there any overlap,” asked one investigator, “between the employees from Fusion who were working on the Trump investigation and the Prevezon case?” Simpson answers: “I can’t tell you that there was a Chinese wall of separation. Various people specialize in certain things and can contribute ad hoc to something.” In other words, yes.
Simpson goes on to name one subcontractor hired for the Prevezon case on account “of his Russian language skill and his ability to interface with the court system in Russia.” The subcontractor is Edward Baumgartner, says Simpson. One committee investigator asks if he was “also working on opposition research for Candidate Trump?” Simpson answers in the affirmative. “At the end of the Prevezon case,” he tells the committee, “we asked him to help.”
The issue isn’t just that there are two Fusion GPS employees working on both dossiers. It is that one of their employers worked closely with the Russian government who played a prominent role in both the anti-Magnitsky campaign and the Trump-Russia collusion story. Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to the Russiagate legend, is the smoking gun showing that the Trump team is taking information on Clinton. There’s an email exchange that shows Trump’s son was eager for it.
Simpson admits that he saw Veselnitskaya before and after the meeting at Trump Tower, at two dinners and a court hearing, but testified that he didn’t know she met with Trump Jr. until it was reported a year later. Yet wouldn’t they discuss an important meeting expressly about the job for which he is being paid by Veselnitskaya? In the meeting with Trump Jr., Veselnitskaya recited the talking points on the Magnitsky act that Simpson’s firm had contributed to. Yet Simpson still says he knew nothing about the meeting.
It is likely that someone besides Simpson and Veselnitskaya can verify or disprove Simpson’s account. Simpson explains in the transcript that he doesn’t speak Russian, and Veselnitskaya “doesn’t really speak English.” So, someone else has to be there to translate for them at their meetings, especially at the court hearing. Perhaps it’s Baumgartner, or maybe someone else who was in the meeting with Trump’s son, like Rinat Akmetshin. Or it might have been the professional translator who attended the Trump Tower meeting, Anatoli Samochornov, a onetime State Dept. contractor who is named in the transcript as a translator who also worked on the Prevezon case. Whoever translated for the two parties will be able to shed more light on how information from the Kremlin wound up in the dossier.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).