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 TrumpFormer Watergate prosecutor: Trump taking the fifth would be political suicide Comey: I’m ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ by Republican party Comey, Anderson Cooper clash over whether memo release violated FBI rules 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 FeinsteinOvernight Cybersecurity: DHS cyber nominee vows to make election security 'top priority' | CIA to allow lawmakers to review classified info on Haspel | Dems raise security concerns about Trump's phone use Democrats fret over GOP changes to Mueller bill Feinstein introduces bill allowing DHS to quickly remove 'compromised software' 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.

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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 ComeyComey: I’m ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ by Republican party Comey, Anderson Cooper clash over whether memo release violated FBI rules The Memo: Jackson ‘fiasco’ casts pall on White House 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 GrassleyGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Democrats fret over GOP changes to Mueller bill Let Robert Mueller do his job 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 PapadopoulosTimes, Post, AP seek sealed Mueller records FBI a house of lies in Comey era DOJ gives House Intel original document that prompted Russia investigation 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 ClintonKim Kardashian West defends Kanye on Trump: 'He's a free thinker, is that not allowed?' Trump comments on Fifth Amendment resurface after Cohen filing The 'Handmaid's Tale' liberal feminists created 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 GrahamGOP anxiety grows over Trump’s Iran decision Overnight Cybersecurity: Senators eye path forward on election security bill | Facebook isn't winning over privacy advocates | New hacks target health care Paul backs Pompeo, clearing path for confirmation 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.