Glenn Simpson, founder of the D.C.-based news-for-hire firm Fusion GPS, is a conspiracy theorist. He says so himself. On page 126 of a transcript released last week from Simpson’s Nov. 14 testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, here’s how the ex-reporter describes his own state of mind: “As sort of cynical and conspiracy-minded as I am,” Simpson told committee members and staff investigating issues related to Russia and the 2016 elections, “I am still shocked by all kinds of things that have happened here.”
For more than a year now, the opposition research that the former Wall Street Journal reporter prepared for his paying customers at the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign has dominated the news cycle. The Steele dossier, produced by Fusion GPS and named after the former British spy Christopher Steele, who allegedly authored it, is the foundation of the grand speculation that Donald Trump won the 2016 election by colluding with Russia.
The collusion narrative has kicked off three congressional inquiries plus Robert Mueller’s special investigation. Far-flung conspiracy theories about Russia, Trump, Putin, Facebook and whoever else are treated as normal “news” every day of the week, with the result that Russiaphobia has swept through Democratic-leaning metropolitan strongholds, which now believe Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are equally responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss last November.
In some sense, none of this should be surprising. Before he left the practice of journalism in 2009, Glenn Simpson was an investigative reporter. As every journalist knows, the investigative reporter is a special breed, valued because of his or her ability to see connections that are likely lost on others—often because there is no connection. What newspaper editors will never admit when they are scooping up prizes won by their ace investigative reporters, but every professional who has been around the block in the news business knows, is that nine of every 10 stories pitched by an investigative reporter are indelibly riddled with speculative lunacy. The one good lead needs to be carefully managed for months by at least one sub-editor before it ever reaches the desk of the top editor, whose publication, and professional reputation, requires excising every trace of madness before the story sees print. If you doubt this, here’s a sample of what a legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning ace investigative reporter like Seymour Hersh sounds like unplugged, i.e. pretty much like every other investigative reporter I have ever met.
So, what happens when there is no more editor, and the investigative reporter, Glenn Simpson, is managing the business? Even worse, what happens when the chief investigative theorist aka conspiracy enthusiast is handing out his fevered story ideas to other journalists—in fact, to the entirety of the Washington and New York press corps, for more than a year? We now know what happens—you wind up with a media that has replicated the sensibility of a conspiracy theorist.
Conspiracy theories are a kind of mental virus that posits a single, malevolent prime mover—Vladimir Putin, the Jews, Freemasons, Illuminati—for rationally grounded and objectively verifiable assessments of cause and effect. Societies that indulge in conspiracy theories are sick places, whose citizen-victims dwell in a kind of demented fantasyland where everything that goes wrong is the work of demons, whose existence is so obvious that very little in the way of concrete proof of their malevolent existence is needed to require the most drastic remedies. Living inside a conspiracy theorist’s head is hellish, which seems like a fair description of the effect that Glenn Simpson’s famous dossier, which FBI director James Comey called “salacious and unverified,” has had on the American public sphere.
But Simpson, as a conspiracy theorist, believes that his conspiracy theories are true. He is “shocked” because he can barely believe the scope and size of the network of possible Trump-Russia co-conspirators that his investigations uncovered. There are so many Russian names in Simpson’s testimony—Russian mobsters, Russian bankers, Russian officials, Russian businessmen, filling his imagination like the characters in a party scene from Anna Karenina. Naturally, there are Russian women, too, like the “big Trump fan in Russia” who enrolled at American University in Washington, D.C., “which I assume gets you a visa,” says Simpson. “I think she’s suspicious.”
Why? Because, says Simpson, at some time she was working with the Russian “banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader named Alexander Torshin who is a life member of the NRA.” A story published by McClatchy claiming that the FBI was investigating whether Russian money went to the NRA to help Trump, thereby elaborating Simpson’s talking points, was conveniently published a day before his testimony was released. To Simpson, what makes it obvious that the Russian businessman’s NRA affiliation is fishy is that “you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians.”
What this tells Simpson is that the Russians are trying to infiltrate the NRA as well as other conservative organizations that have an important place in American society, like Chabad, the outreach arm of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement. After all, Chabad has a presence all over the world, including Moscow, where Putin lives, and New York City, where Trump is from. The Jewish diaspora, says Simpson, “appears to be a very interesting route for the Russians.”
Indeed, according to the dossier that Simpson produced, Russian intelligence, the FSB, was approaching “U.S. citizens of Russian (Jewish) origin on business trips to Russia” as potential foreign agents. “In one case,” reads the dossier, “a U.S. citizen of Russian ethnicity had been visiting Moscow to attract investors in his new information technology program. The FSB clearly knew this and had offered to provide seed capital to this person in return for them being able to access and modify his IP, with a view to targeting priority foreign targets by planting a Trojan virus in the software.”
So we are to assume that in exchange for cash, Jews were helping to spy on America.
Is it surprising that Russiagate would incorporate Jews into its narrative? No. There was zero chance that a conspiracy theorist like Simpson would not find a role for the Jews in his grand Trump-Russia collusion narrative. A conspiracy theory without an international cabal of un-rooted cosmopolitans exerting their influence on finance and politics in whatever society they inhabit would be like writing a symphony without a string section. You could do it, but why bother? At least one publication paid full price for orchestra seats.
In April 2017, Politico published “The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump and Putin.” How are they connected? Well, Putin is close to several Chabad supporters, as well as Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi. Trump worked with some Russian emigres who are active in Chabad, including a convicted felon, Felix Sater. In Florida, Trump hosted the wedding of the daughter of a Chabad supporter he knows to an associate of one of the Chabad supporters who is close to Putin.
What does all this tell us about the alleged relationship between Trump and Putin?
“Their respective ambitions led the two men,” writes Politico, “to build a set of close, overlapping relationships in a small world that intersects on Chabad, an international Hasidic movement most people have never heard of.”
You see—they’re furtive. Almost no one has heard of them. The only people who appear to understand Chabad’s role in the secret Trump-Putin collusion conspiracy are the author of the story and Glenn Simpson, who came back to this insane theory again in his testimony before Congress. Yet this lunacy was evidently plausible enough to the editorial staff at Politico, whose headline is the only thing that actually connects Trump and Putin in a story insinuating a secret Jewish plot to undermine American democracy.
In the past, it was Russian intelligence that trafficked in disinformation operations tagging Jews as the engine of instability in Western countries. The most famous specimen was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And previously, the ethics and institutional structures of the mainstream American press prevented conspiracy theories from polluting the country’s public sphere. Today, by contrast, American journalists congratulating themselves for their ever-vigilant stance against Russian encroachment on our democratic institutions willingly usher in updated versions of the Protocols.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).