The Steele Dossier—the sensational opposition-research document that alleged, among other things, that Donald Trump once performed urinary vandalism on a Moscow hotel-room bed—has just celebrated the first anniversary of its release by BuzzFeed. Now, thanks to the publication of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interview with Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson, who commissioned the research, the document has reflowered to daub the press with its perfume once more.
At the beginning of the year, Simpson called for the release of his testimony in a New York Times op-ed, writing, “We’re extremely proud of our work to highlight Mr. Trump’s Russia ties.” Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) seconded him at the beginning of the week, beseeched committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) to do just that. They called for GOP attacks on Simpson and dossier author Christopher Steele to stop and for selective leaks of the Simpson testimony to cease.
“Diverting our focus from Russian interference to Glenn Simpson or Christopher Steele is, in our view, a misallocation of scarce resources,” Blumenthal and Whitehouse wrote in a statement.
Grassley, who had called for the Justice Department to investigate Steele, a former intelligence officer with the British MI6, ignored the requests, prompting the committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, to unilaterally dump the testimony in an act of retaliation. For her labors, Feinstein earned the sobriquet “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein” from Trump’s Twitter feed. The way the Democrats see it, Republicans (and the president) who once dismissed the dossier as bogus are now framing Steele’s report as a Democratic Party smear job designed to cripple Trump. The Feinstein release formalizes the split between the Democrats and Republicans on the committee, threatening to turn a single investigation into two. The Washington Post characterized the Republicans/Democrats discord as a “feud.”
To refresh your memory on the dossier, Steele alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin government has been trying to cultivate Trump for five years and has gathered compromising information on him. His report also asserts that the Russians amassed and disseminated compromising information on Hillary Clinton and was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails that WikiLeaks, acting as the cut-out, released. The Russians also made multiple contacts with people in the Trump orbit. (See this Washington Post report for a full run-down.)
The dossier flashback triggered by the Simpson interview didn’t restart the debate over the document’s basic credibility as much as it illustrated how seriously the FBI took the Steele allegations, which had already been looking into Russian meddling when Steele approached them with his findings in July 2016. According to Simpson when the FBI reinterviewed Steele that October, the bureau said they agreed with some of what he said. (As has previously been reported, the FBI reimbursed Steele for some expenses he incurred and briefly discussed additional funding.)
The most electrifying revelation from the Simpson transcript fizzled almost as soon as it was lit. Simpson told the committee the FBI thought Steele’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.” This seemed to imply to some that the FBI had placed an informant inside the Trumpies. Infiltration of a presidential campaign by the FBI is not even something J. Edgar Hoover would have dared! Outrage was quelled after Ken Dilanian of NBC News reported that a “source close to Fusion GPS” had told him that no such “walk-in source” existed—that the Simpson passage was a reference to the Australian diplomat tip about George Papadopoulos,” the “Coffee Boy” who eventually became a cooperating witness for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and not some random FBI stoolie.
Simpson denies that he and Steele were operating as Democratic Party apparatchiks at the time, even though the Hillary Clinton campaign was their Trump-in-Russia report client. Just before investigating Trump for Clinton, Fusion GSP investigated Trump for the Daily Beacon, a conservative website, a probe that was funded by a rich Republican. He told the committee that he runs a professional business, working for both parties’ candidates, and that he and Steele were surprised to learn what they did about Trump as they researched his relationship with Russians. “What came back was something very different and obviously more alarming,” Simpson said. He likened the decision to contact the FBI to placing a 911 call after seeing something unusual while driving to work.
“[Steele] said he was very concerned about whether this represented a national security threat and said he wanted to—he said he thought we were obligated to tell someone in government, in our government about this information. He thought from his perspective there was an issue—a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed,” Simpson told the committee during his 10 hours of testimony, during which he praised his longtime collaborator as “Boy Scout.”
Simpson’s chronology, if true, blows a hole in the Republican position that the dossier was contrived politically to give the FBI an excuse to “spy” on Trump. In the Simpson version, the FBI was already onto the Trump story. The dossier only deepened their interest.
The scandal’s main stage will revert to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as soon as he sits down for his interview with Trump, which despite whatever foot-dragging the president wants to offer, will one day arrive. The press reported this week that Mueller has added a veteran cyber-prosecutor to his team, signaling that in addition to fraud and money-laundering specialists, he needs a lawyer conversant in computer crime. The prosecutor, Ryan K. Dickey, previously worked on the investigation of the Romanian hacker Marcel Lazar Lehel who went by the name of “Guccifer.”
Not quite gloating about the dossier was BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who celebrated its first birthday with a stirring New York Times op-ed expressing pride in his toddler, and by extension its validity. “I haven’t had a single person approach me to say, I wish I hadn’t read the dossier, and wish I had less insight into the forces at play in America,’ ” Smith wrote.
The day the triumphant op-ed appeared, Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed, Smith, and three BuzzFeed employees, and another lawsuit against Fusion GPS. Previously, Cohen had issued a rebuttal of the dossier’s attempt to link him with the Russians.
The Cohen lawsuits came, the New York Times reported, “a day before the statute of limitations for a libel claim would have expired.”
Some guys really know how to spoil a party.
Don’t send defamation suits to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts work hand-in-glove with the Russians. My Twitter feed is so corrupt it could never sue anybody for defamation. My RSS feed is a former MI6 officer for hire.