In a new book, the founders of the firm that compiled it defend their work.
For nearly three years, President Trump has spun an alternate reality in which he was not helped and tainted by Russia during the 2016 Presidential campaign but, rather, his political opponents and his accusers were. During a rambling fifty-three-minute live phone interview with “Fox & Friends” on Friday, Trump insisted again that the plot to block his election and bring him down once he was installed in the White House was “perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of our country.”
On Tuesday, two of the President’s most prolific accusers plan to disrupt the narrative by telling their own story. Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the co-founders of the Washington-based private-investigative firm Fusion GPS, which has mined deep veins of muck on Trump for years, at the behest of his various political enemies, will try to throw the book at Trump with the publication of “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.”
Fusion was the firm that hired the former British spy Christopher Steele to research Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. After nearly three years without a word from Steele, while the so-called pee tape and his other sensational findings sparked furious controversy, the former M.I.6 spy speaks directly and on the record about his own part for the first time in the book, an advance copy of which was given to The New Yorker.
Whether Simpson and Fritsch’s score-settling, tell-all account will change any minds remains to be seen, but they present a mountain of evidence that Trump’s dealings with corrupt foreign players—particularly those from the former Soviet Union—are both real and go back decades. Steele’s dossier has been debated, denounced, derided, and occasionally defended almost since the moment it was first published, in January, 2017, by BuzzFeed News, against Steele’s wishes. Although Carl Bernstein helped to break the news of its existence on CNN, his friend and Watergate-reporting partner Bob Woodward dismissed it almost instantly as “garbage.” During impeachment-hearing testimony last week, the former White House national-security adviser Fiona Hill, one of America’s foremost experts on Russia and a professional acquaintance of Steele’s, described the dossier as “a rabbit hole” and suggested that Steele may have been “played.” But the authors defend Steele’s work, and their own, arguing that it has proved “strikingly right.”
As the authors tell it, they became obsessed with Trump almost accidentally. Their involvement in his campaign began as a business proposition. In the past, they had worked mostly for corporate clients, but in 2012 they had also done some political-opposition research on the Republican Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. (They declined to disclose their client.) So, in 2015, as Trump gained momentum, but before he clinched the nomination, Simpson and Fritsch again decided to look for political work. After firing off a quick e-mail to a big conservative donor they knew who disliked Trump, they were hired. They don’t identify that donor but note, helpfully, that he arranged for them to contract their opposition-research assignment through the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative Web site known to be funded by Paul Singer, a New York hedge-fund magnate. Once Trump secured the nomination, however, the G.O.P. donor fled.
At that point, Fusion switched clients and political parties, pitching its services to Marc Elias, the lawyer for the D.N.C. and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Clinton’s identity, too, was kept hidden, in this case behind the screen of Elias’s law firm, Perkins Coie. In the beginning, Clinton’s identity was also hidden from Steele, who knew only that Fusion was hiring him in the late spring of 2016, as a contractor, to investigate the tangled web of Trump’s ties to Russia for an unknown patron. Contrary to the conspiracy theories that the right later spread, Simpson and Fritsch write that they never met or spoke with Clinton. “As far as Fusion knew, Clinton herself had no idea who they were. To this day, no one in the company has ever met or spoken to her,” the book reads. As I reported, although Steele went to the F.B.I. with his findings out of a sense of duty and, by the late summer of 2016, knew that the F.B.I. was seriously investigating Trump’s Russian ties, the communication channels were so siloed that the Clinton campaign was unaware of these facts. Far from conspiring in a plot, the Clinton team had no hard evidence that the F.B.I. was investigating its opponent, even as its own opposition researcher was feeding dirt to the F.B.I. As one top Clinton campaign official told me when I wrote about Steele, “If I’d known the F.B.I. was investigating Trump, I would have been shouting it from the rooftops!”
Recent news reports have suggested that Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, in a forthcoming report, will also knock down some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Steele, including the false claim that his dossier prompted the F.B.I. to investigate Trump. F.B.I. officials have repeatedly said that their investigation was already under way when Steele tried to alert them. But Horowitz’s assessment, which is expected to be released publicly on December 9th, also reportedly includes some criticism of Steele, and of the F.B.I.’s relationship with him.
According to the Fusion GPS founders, the real story of their role in the Trump investigation was filled with missed cues and human foibles. They portray themselves as hardened gumshoes who became concerned and tried to do their civic duty and report “a crime in progress,” which has been spun by their detractors into a conspiracy.
Early on, Fusion’s probe of Trump was given a huge boost by Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter for the Village Voice. Barrett, who was suffering from a terminal illness, bequeathed his voluminous files on Trump to the firm. His findings opened up Trump’s past dealings, including tax and bankruptcy problems, potential ties to organized crime, and numerous legal entanglements. They also revealed that Trump had an unusually high number of connections to Russians with questionable backgrounds. As his son Don, Jr., boasted in 2008, Russians “make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” (Trump denied having any business ties to Russia during his campaign, but, later, his former lawyer Michael Cohen admitted that Trump’s associates were trying to negotiate a deal for him in Moscow at the time. The business angle was one of the subjects on which Steele’s dossier was prescient.)
The more the Fusion team learned, the more alarmed it grew. By the spring of 2016, Simpson and Fritsch write, they were no longer just in it for the money. They were convinced they needed “to do what they could to keep Trump out of the White House.”
It was at this point that they turned to Steele, a former spy who had left his position as the head of M.I.6’s Russia desk to co-found Orbis, a private-investigation firm in London, and whom they had known and trusted from previous engagements. Coincidentally, Simpson and Fritsch disclose that, just weeks before they tapped Steele, he had reached out to them regarding a different investigation. As I wrote in my Profile of Steele, he was working on behalf of the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Simpson and Fritsch fill out this picture further. Deripaska, a hugely rich associate of Putin with a clouded reputation, had hired an American law firm, which had, in turn, hired Steele, to help them track down millions of dollars that the oligarch believed had been stolen from him by Paul Manafort, a former business associate of Deripaska who was about to become the manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign. So, from the start, Fusion, Steele, Russia, and Trumpworld were on a collision course.
Initially, Steele expected his work with Fusion to be a brief engagement. But his network of Russian sources turned up shocking information. Steele’s first report found that Russia had tried to cultivate Trump by dangling business ventures and had been accumulating blackmail material, including what later came to be known as the pee tape—ostensibly a recording showing prostitutes entertaining Trump by urinating on a hotel bed, at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, in which the Obamas had previously slept. Following Steele’s first report, he and Fusion went back for what eventually became sixteen more, the sum of which collectively became known as Steele’s “dossier,” perhaps the most controversial opposition research ever to emerge from a Presidential campaign.
Despite the fact that the fabled pee tape has never surfaced and Trump immediately denied its existence, Simpson and Fritsch write that Steele remains confident that his reports are neither a fabrication nor the “hoax” of Trump’s denunciations. Trump’s defenders have claimed that Steele fell prey to Russian disinformation, and, therefore, it is he, not Trump, who has been a useful idiot for the Russians. But Steele tells the authors, “These people simply have no idea what they’re talking about.” He emphasizes that his network of sources “is tried and tested” and has “been proven up in many other matters.” He adds, “I’ve spent my entire adult life working with Russian disinformation. It’s an incredibly complex subject that is at the very core of my training and my professional mission.”
Steele points out that the most critical criteria for judging disinformation is “whether there is a palpable motive for spreading it”; the ultimate Russian goal in 2016, he argues, “was to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president, and therefore, the idea that they would intentionally spread embarrassing information about Trump—true or not—is not logical.”
Steele, according to Simpson and Fritsch, is equally dismissive of those who claim that the Russians spread disinformation in order to discredit him. “The stakes were far, far too high for them to trifle with settling scores with me or any other civilian,” he said. “Damaging my reputation was simply not on their list of priorities. But helping Trump, and damaging Hillary was at the very top of it. No one denies that anymore.”
Simpson and Fritsch acknowledge that several of Steele’s most sensational allegations remain unproven and that others were almost surely wrong, such as his sources’ claim that the Trump fixer Michael Cohen went to Prague during the summer of 2016 to pay off the Democrats’ e-mail hackers. But they argue that Steele was substantially right, and prescient, to see and try to warn America of Russia’s efforts to subvert the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
They write that “a spy whose sources get it 70 percent right is considered to be one of the best,” and that, while reporters focussed on the most salacious details, they “tended to miss the central message,” about which they say Steele was largely correct. They note that, in his first report, in June, 2016, Steele warned that Russian election meddling was “endorsed by Putin” and “supported and directed” by him to “sow discord and disunity with the United States itself but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance”—six months before the U.S. intelligence community collectively embraced the same conclusion. Steele also was right, they argue, that “Putin wasn’t merely seeking to create a crisis of confidence in democratic elections. He was actively pulling strings to destroy Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump,” an assessment the U.S. intelligence community also came to accept. And they note that, as of September, 2019, U.S. officials confirmed that the C.I.A. had “a human source inside the Russian government during the campaign, who provided information that dovetailed with Steele’s reporting about Russia’s objective of electing Trump and Putin’s direct involvement in the operation.”
Critics will likely take issue with this, as well as with some of the authors’ others claims, including their contention that others bear the brunt of the responsibility for the confidential dossier leaking, not them. Fusion GPS briefed scores of journalists on the dossier, including The New Yorker. Unable to confirm its contents, most, including me, chose not to write about it. But, just prior to the election, David Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief, became the first to disclose its existence and, with Fusion’s help, to get a background interview with Steele. The Fusion team also gave an off-the-record briefing on the dossier to Ken Bensinger, the BuzzFeed News reporter who soon after obtained and published the first copy from another source.
Both Fritsch and Simpson were investigative reporters at the Wall Street Journal, and their skill at ferreting out juicy secrets from public records, particularly in difficult-to-navigate foreign countries, including Russia, turned the private-research firm they founded in 2010 into what they describe as “something of a public reading room” for journalists seeking dirt on Trump’s circle. In fact, it becomes evident that in the past few years they have thrown nearly as much chum to the media as the keepers have to the seals at the National Zoo, up the street from their Dupont Circle offices.
Their role as purveyors of anti-Trump tips, they reveal, did not end with Trump’s election. By then, they were so deeply convinced of the danger they thought Trump and Russia posed to democracy at home and abroad that they kept their band together and formed an independent nonprofit group devoted to providing further research to the media on the threat. To helm the nonprofit, the Democracy Integrity Project, they turned to Daniel Jones, a former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee who has recently gained fame from the film “The Report,” in which Adam Driver plays Jones as he struggles to bust the C.I.A.’s torture program. The Fusion and Orbis teams have joined Jones in the real-life sequel, in which they have been roaming the world, researching threats to democracy and alerting the media whenever they can.
All of this helps to explain Trump’s fixation on Steele, whose work he denounced yet again, in his phone interview with Fox on Friday, as “the phony, fake dossier, the disgusting fake dossier.” Republicans in Congress, too, continue to be obsessed with Steele. Last week, in the midst of his opening remarks in the congressional impeachment hearings, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Devin Nunes, Republican of California, went off on a tangent that was almost unintelligible to anyone not steeped in Trumpworld’s alternative narrative, claiming that Democrats “got caught defending the false allegations of the Steele dossier, which was paid for by them.” And Republicans in Congress have dragged Simpson in to testify multiple times, as well as subpoenaed his firm’s bank records and caused him and his partners to fear financial ruin.
Some readers of “Crime in Progress” may begin to wonder if the special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t miss the mark. The authors praise Mueller for documenting more than a hundred and forty suspicious contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians, and for criminally indicting thirty-four individuals, including six in Trump’s inner circle and a dozen Russian agents behind the hack of the Democrats’ e-mails and thirteen individuals and three companies tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. But they criticize Mueller’s probe for failing to heed the main lesson of Watergate: to “follow the money.” Simpson and Fritsch note that “there is no indication in his report that the investigation looked at Trump’s taxes, his outstanding debts, his curious relationship with Deutsche Bank, or his long history of financing real estate projects with foreign cash of unknown origin—precisely the places where Russian influence efforts were most likely to surface.”
By now, most of the public attention has moved on from Trump’s Russian entanglements to those next door, in neighboring Ukraine. By getting their version of events out to the public, in advance of that of the Justice Department, the authors have performed a neat bit of publishing jujitsu. But the truth about Trumpworld is that no form of journalism is quite fast enough to keep up with every new development, because there is always another potential “crime in progress.”