Oh, man! I’ve been on a kick of most excellent period-piece mysteries, but I had to interrupt it to focus on the latest, most crazy political controversy from the past couple weeks. After Senator Feinstein released the transcript of testimony from Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, I read two fascinating (and lengthy) twitter threads analyzing the transcript.
Elizabeth McLaughlin is a lawyer and CEO, and has a 60-tweet thread of her reading here: https://twitter.com/ECMcLaughlin/status/950884746082562048
Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and journalist, and his 200-tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/950800455797534720
The analyses are fascinating, and the quotes from both Simpson and Steele are completely bonkers! So, a quick rehash, which I’m going to put after a break, because it gets a bit involved.
Glenn Simpson is an ex-journalist for the Wall Street Journal, specializing in financial crimes, particularly those involving corruption in Russia. He is currently the CEO of Fusion GPS, a research firm that is hired to do basically background research on political, or otherwise important, people and/or companies.
The hearing itself, by the way, sounds brutal. It was called by the Republican party, so they get to kick it off with an hour of questions. Then the Democratic party has an hour to ask questions, before it returns to the Republicans, and they switch off hourly, until all questions have been asked.
The Republicans spend their first two sessions asking about Prevezon, a previous court case in which Fusion GPS was hired to do background research. It is unbelievably complicated financial shuffling, but the main take-away seems to be that it actually involved some of the same (Russian) people that show up in relation to Trump’s dealings. (My main takeaway was that there was someone involved named John Moscow, which is just too over-the-top.)
According to McLaughlin and Abramson, who are noted liberals, the Republicans are trying hard to find Fusion GPS doing some underhanded dealings with Russia, so that they can cast a shadow of a doubt that Fusion GPS is on the up-and-up. In fact, Abramson notes that they don’t even say the name Trump in the first hour of questioning. The Democrats, of course, jump right in when their hour starts.
Simpson won’t name clients, but said that he was first hired in the Fall of 2015 to see whether Trump had anything in his background that would prevent him from being a successful politician. Both McLaughlin and Abramson think the timing makes it pretty clear that the clients were Republican, since Trump wasn’t on much radar as a serious contender back then. (Nine months later, around mid-2016, a law firm working on the Clinton campaign joined in funding Fusion GPS’s research.)
So, almost immediately, like within 72 hours of just sort of asking around about Trump’s connections to Russian finances, they are finding enough evidence that it warrants bringing in an expert. Simpson testified that they heard a lot of talk of Trump business in Russia, including from Trump himself, but couldn’t find any actual businesses.
Which is where the perfectly named Christopher Steele comes in. Steele is ex-MI6, specializing in Russian propaganda and disinformation. He was apparently good enough at it that he trained other agents, too. Anyway, he also now runs a consulting firm, Orbis, which was subcontracted by Fusion GPS to do a deeper dive into Trumps’ business entities in Russia.
So Steele goes to Russian, does whatever ex-MI6 people do (talks to people), and relatively quickly uncovers what seems to him like a political conspiracy. Steele is now concerned that he’s uncovered a national security risk for the US, and tells Simpson that since they may well be uncovering criminal activity, it is their responsibility to report it. Simpson comes across as somewhat reluctant, actually (it sounds like the job blew up in his face a bit), but gives Steele the go-ahead to report it as he sees fit.
Steele meets with the FBI in Rome, where he learns that the FBI already has an inside source in the Trump campaign. There is now A LOT of discussion about who that person is!
Just to add another wrinkle to the whole mess, a month or so later, the New York Times publishes an article saying that the FBI hasn’t found any connections between Trump and Russian politics, and shortly after that, FBI Director Comey announces that he is reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Both Steele and Simpson, and a bunch of people around them, start to wonder if the FBI is compromised and illegally getting involved politically, so they stop communicating with them.
Now, there are SO MANY more details to all of this, and Fusion and Steele continued their work after the election. Apparently, when they saw no movement from the FBI, Steele when to John McCain, and there’s been silence from that quarter, too.
Honestly, everything is so messy that I don’t totally comprehend it all, but I also can’t stop reading about it! I just highly recommend reading the above linked twitter feeds, as well as the original files for the Steele Dossier and the Simpson testimony. I thought they would be super dry legalize, but after reading excerpts taken in the twitter analyses, I decided to try them out, and they are awesome, too!
Steele is pretty straight-forward, with names, places, and factual information, without a lot of excess verbiage. However, every so often, he lets a little cheekiness out:
“Finally, regarding TRUMP’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. TRUMP’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St Petersburg as well as Moscow but in the end TRUMP had had to settle for the use of extensive sexual services there from local prostitutes rather than business success.”
Some other interesting tidbits from the dossier:
- Apparently, the infamous “pee tape” is not actually of Trump either giving or receiving a ‘golden shower’; it is of him watching prostitutes pee on the presidential bed that President and First Lady Obama had slept in when they had previously visited Moscow. That level of petty and childishness is mind-boggling to me. (It also doesn’t seem like quite serious enough to be blackmailed over, to me; I bet Trump’s supporters would think it was hilarious.)
- Steele writes a couple of times that Putin “hates and fears” Hillary Clinton, and I would just love to hear more about that!
- Oh, shit, the dossier name-checks Jill Stein as receiving funding from Moscow!
Buzzfeed has posted the Steele dossier for download here (under major controversy): https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3259984-Trump-Intelligence-Allegations.html
Senator Feinstein posted the Simpson transcript on her webpage here (less controversy than annoyance from Republicans; at the very beginning of the transcript, it is made clear that this hearing is not considered classified information): https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/3/9/3974a291-ddbe-4525-9ed1-22bab43c05ae/934A3562824CACA7BB4D915E97709D2F.simpson-transcript-redacted.pdf
In addition to just the craziness of Trump’s business, Simpson gives some fascinating look at what his work entails. For instance, when hired to research Trump, the first thing he does is go on Amazon, and order every single book about him. (He says he was shocked at how many this was.) Then, he and his team tracks down and collects all public records available for court cases and public sales and the such.
Simpson describes his own work as “…generally we do public records work. So we deal in documents and things that are very hard and that are useful in court or, you know, other kinds of proceedings.”
Once they’ve got a clearer idea of what the general layout is, they’ll contract with regional exports to do more on-the-ground investigation. Christopher Steele was their expert in Russia, but Simpson mentions also hiring people to look deeper into the court cases and land disputes in Ireland and Scotland.
He describes Steele’s work much differently:
“Chris deals in a very different kind of information, which is human intelligence, human information. So by its very nature the question of whether something is accurate isn’t really asked. The question that is asked generally is whether it’s credible. Human intelligence isn’t good for, you know, filing lawsuits. It’s good for making decisions and trying to understand what’s going on and that’s a really valuable thing, but it’s not the same thing.”
(Chris basically does gossip mongering, and I love it!) Also, one of the spins by the Republican party is that Simpson is uncooperative and antagonistic in the testimony, and I wouldn’t call him that at all, but he definitely occasionally has some sass, which I am here for! (Also, around the 6-hour mark of the testimony, you can tell that he and his lawyers are getting tired and a bit cranky.)
Honestly, this is probably the best international spy/political thriller I’ve ever read, and I have high expectations of it becoming a completely bonkers movie in 10-20 years. I can’t wait!