Dems roil probe with release of Fusion GPS transcript

Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in August that law enforcement officials had already been investigating President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s team for Russia connections before the “Steele dossier” was completed.

Simpson, whose opposition research firm compiled the controversial dossier, pushed back in his testimony on the idea that Fusion GPS produced a phony document, telling 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 FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, on Tuesday unilaterally released Simpson’s more than 300 pages of testimony to the committee in a startling move that comes amid an escalating partisan fight over the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Some Republicans, at times echoed by Trump, have mounted a public campaign questioning the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation. They have suggested the FBI used the dossier, described by then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThere was nothing remotely treasonous in Trump's performance with Putin Opinion: One FBI text message in Russia probe that should alarm every American Clapper: Intel officials showed Trump evidence of Putin's role in election meddling MORE 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 Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE (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 what he knew as a “security issue.”

Simpson in his testimony mounted a full-throated defense of the dossier work, denying 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 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 PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosWife of Papadopoulos interviews with House Intel Dems Mueller probing Roger Stone following Russian hacker indictment: report Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback MORE.

According to Simpson, Steele first met with the FBI in the first week of July 2016. He then met with an agent in Rome that fall, a trip 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, Papadopoulos told him Russia had political dirt on Trump’s campaign rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProminent Putin critic: If Trump turns me over, I'm dead Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up 'a strong Russia' MORE.

Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements to the FBI.

“Essentially what [Steele] told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that ... my understanding was that they believed Chris 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 of a meeting Steele had with a bureau agent in September.

Simpson has said previously he does not believe 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 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 the only aspects that have been confirmed are those that were already publicly available and 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 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,” he said.

The release of the transcript comes as the political fight over the dossier has hit a fever pitch on Capitol Hill. Last week, Grassley and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Polling analyst: Changes to legal immigration ‘the real sticking point among Democrats’ Graham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (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 Steele may have misled the FBI. It cites a law prohibiting individuals from lying to federal authorities, asking the Justice Department 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 just two weeks before the election stating that the FBI had investigated alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia but found no clear link. The former spy was concerned “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.