By Katie Bo Williams and Jonathan Easley - 01/09/18 06:48 PM EST
Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in August that law enforcement officials had already been investigating President Trump’s team on Russia before the so-called “Steele dossier” was completed.
Simpson, whose opposition research firm complied the controversial dossier, pushed back in his testimony that his firm had produced a phony document, and told the panel behind closed doors that the document’s author, a former MI6 spy named Christopher Steele, told him that by September, the FBI already had “other intelligence” backing up claims in the dossier.
“It's political rhetoric to call the dossier phony. ... We can argue about what's prudent and what's not, but it's not a fabrication,” Simpson told the panel.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, unilaterally released Simpson’s more than 300 pages of testimony to the committee in a startling move on Tuesday that comes amid an escalating partisan fight over the FBI’s Russian investigation.
Some Republicans, at times echoed by Trump, have mounted a public campaign questioning the FBI’s handling of the Russian investigation. They have suggested the FBI used the dossier, described by then-FBI Director James Comey as “salacious and unverified,” as the predicate for a baseless investigation.
Simpson’s testimony calls into question that narrative, pushing back at the notion that the dossier was a partisan hit-job funded by Democrats. Its release infuriated Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who called Feinstein’s actions “confounding.”
According to Simpson, who had called on Grassley to release the transcript, Steele was so concerned by the possibility that a presidential candidate might be “blackmailed” by Russia that he reached out to the FBI of his own accord to share when he knew as “a security issue.”
Simpson in his testimony mounted a full-throated defense of the dossier work, denying that it was paid for by Russia and insisting that the firm was mostly interested in Trump's business dealings until Steele brought back “something ... very different.
He told investigators that Steele told him that the FBI had an informant in the Trump campaign. A source close to Fusion GPS told The Hill on Tuesday that Simpson misspoke, mischaracterizing a tip that an Australian diplomat gave the bureau related to Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
According to Simpson, Steele first met with the bureau in the first week of July of 2016. He later met an agent in Rome in the fall, a trip that the bureau reimbursed. The bureau launched its investigation into the Trump campaign in late July.
During that same month, according to the New York Times, a representative of Australia’s government told the bureau that during a night of drinking, Papadopolous had told him that Russia had political dirt on Trump's campaign rival Hillary Clinton.
Papadopolous has since pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements to the FBI.
“Essentially what [former MI6 agent Christopher Steele] told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they and other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization,” Simpson said of a meeting Steele had with a bureau agent in September.
Simpson has said previously that he does not believe that the dossier was the basis for the FBI investigation.
The Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee funded the project in 2016, when Steele began his work. Prior to that, the conservative Washington Free Beacon had paid Fusion to do background research on Trump and his business empire.
“I was a journalist for most of my adult life and a professional at not taking sides,” Simpson said. “I’m happy and proud to say I have lots of Republican clients and friends and I have lots of Democratic clients and friends...I know a lot of people on both sides and we have a long, proud history of not being partisan.”
Simpson would not reveal any of Steele’s sources, saying that they would potentially face physical harm if word got out.
“People who get in the way of the Russians tend to get hurt,” Simpson said. Shortly thereafter, his lawyer testified that “somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier,” without offering details.
Many Democrats insist that key details in the dossier have been confirmed, such as a trip that former Trump adviser Carter Page took to Moscow in 2016. Skeptics of the dossier say that the only aspects that have been confirmed are those that were already publicly available and that there is no evidence to support the core claims of collusion and corruption in the dossier.
Simpson defended the veracity of Steele’s findings—as well as the credibility of the former MI6 agent himself, whose reputation he called “sterling.”
“Chris had delivered a lot of information and by this time we had stood up a good bit of it,” Simpson said. “Various things he had written about in his memos corresponded quite closely with other events and I began...to view his reporting in this case as...really serious and really credible.”
Still, Simpson acknowledged that there is potential for errors and misinterpretation in Steele’s line of work. The dossier, he argued, is not a unified, systematically organized single document, but rather a “collection of field interviews.”
“When you evaluate human intelligence, human reporting, field reporting, source reporting, it’s sort of like when you’re a journalist and you’re trying to figure out who’s telling the truth,” Simpson said.
“You don’t really decide who’s telling the truth. You decide whether the person is credible, whether they know what they’re talking about, whether there’s other reasons to believe what they’re talking about, whether there’s other reasons to believe what they’re saying, whether anything they’ve said factually matches up with something in public record.”
The release of the transcript comes as the political fight over the so-called Steele dossier has hit a fever pitch on Capitol Hill. Last week, Grassley and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into Steele, with Graham accusing the former spy of “shopping this dossier all over the world” while acting as an informant for the FBI.
The referral appears to suggest that Steele may have misled the FBI. It cites a law prohibiting individuals from lying to federal authorities, asking DOJ to probe whether Steele made false statements about “the distribution of claims from the dossier.”
Simpson acknowledged in his testimony that he had Steele brief a small group of reporters on his findings. The briefings took place before the election and after Steele had first reached out to the FBI.
But according to Simpson, Steele cut off his contact with the bureau after the Times ran a story in the fall alleging that the Trump campaign was not under investigation. The former spy was concerned 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,” Simpson said.