WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee unilaterally released the transcript of that committee’s interview with a co-founder of Fusion GPS, the research firm that hired former British spy Christopher Steele to investigate ties between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
The Judiciary Committee talked to Fusion’s Glenn Simpson in August as part of its investigation into Russian election interference and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The interview focused on Fusion’s work with Steele, who compiled allegations of salacious and corrupt ties between Donald Trump and Russian government officials going back several years. BuzzFeed published the unsubstantiated allegations last January.
Once a bipartisan effort, the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry has splintered along partisan lines, with Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) working to discredit Fusion by portraying it as a Russian operative.
Simpson answered questions from committee staffers for nearly 10 hours, producing more than 300 pages of transcript. Last week, he accused the committee’s Republican members of selectively leaking details from the interview to far-right media outlets while refusing to release the transcript in full.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) appeared similarly frustrated with her Republican counterparts. “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,” she wrote in a statement explaining her unusual decision to bypass the committee’s chairman in releasing the document.
Here are the top takeaways from the transcript:
Simpson was cooperative.
Grassley told The New York Times that Simpson was “uncooperative” during the interview. But the transcript shows the former Wall Street Journal reporter providing forthcoming responses to questions about Fusion GPS’s work with Steele and Steele’s communication with the FBI. Simpson did decline to comment on Steele’s sources and the identity of Fusion’s clients.
Simpson also answered extensive questions about Fusion’s work for an American law firm that represented Prevezon, a shell company owned by a Russian business that was accused of money laundering.
Simpson saw Natalia Veselnitskaya the same day she met secretly with the Trump campaign.
Natalia Veselnitskaya was Prevezon’s lawyer in Russia so Simpson interacted with her when Fusion was working on the Prevezon case. She was also the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort in June 2016 at Trump Tower. The Trump team took the meeting with her under the impression that she would provide damning information the Russian government had acquired about Hillary Clinton.
Simpson saw Veselnitskaya in court for the Prevezon case in New York on June 9 — the same day she met with the Trump team. He saw her again on June 10 at a dinner in Washington, D.C., but said they were seated at opposite ends of the table. He first became aware of her role in the Trump Tower meeting when The New York Times broke the story the following year. “I was stunned,” Simpson told the committee.
Steele sought out the FBI because he was worried candidate Trump was being blackmailed by Russia.
Fusion hired Steele in May or June of 2016, after exhausting open-source methods of investigating Trump, Simpson said. The former spy produced the first of several memos for Fusion in June 2016 and then suggested going to the FBI.
“His concern,” Simpson said, was “whether or not there was blackmail going on, whether a political candidate was being blackmailed or had been compromised.”
Simpson signed off on the decision and Steele took his information to someone he knew at the FBI in late June or early July, according to Simpson. Steele traveled to Rome in September to give the FBI a full debriefing.
The FBI thought Steele was credible because they had received a similar tip from a Trump insider.
After briefing the FBI, Steele told Simpson that the bureau “had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source,” according to Simpson.
“My understanding was that they believed Chris [Steele] at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had 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 during his Senate interview. Asked to clarify whether the source was part of Trump’s campaign or Trump’s business, Simpson declined to comment.
It’s possible that Simpson was referring to George Papadopoulos, a onetime foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign team. Although Papadopoulos didn’t go to the FBI, he told an Australian diplomat in 2016 that Russia had dirt on Clinton. The Australian government later passed that information to the FBI.
Steele “severed his relationship” with the FBI after the Times reported the bureau found no Trump ties to Russia.
On Oct. 31, 2016, The New York Times reported that the FBI had not “found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” Steele, who had been meticulously documenting allegations of ties between Trump and Russia, was taken aback. He stopped dealing with the FBI “out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI,” Simpson told the committee. “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.”
Liz Spayd, then the New York Times public editor, addressed this story last January and implied that the paper’s reporters were aware of Steele’s unsubstantiated findings but weren’t able to verify them. “I have spoken privately with several journalists involved in the reporting last fall, and I believe a strong case can be made that The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had,” Spayd wrote.
“Somebody’s already been killed” as a result of the publication of the Steele dossier.
Near the end of the interview, Jason Foster, Grassley’s chief investigative counsel for the committee, pressed Simpson on what steps he took to verify the credibility of Steele’s sources. Simpson declined to answer. When Foster pushed back, Simpson’s lawyer Joshua Levy interjected.
“It’s a voluntary interview, and in addition to that he wants to be very careful to protect his sources. 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,” Levy said.