Democrats believed that bringing Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on July 24, 2019 was a way to allow a non-reading American public to finally hear the full story told in Mueller’s 448-page report: people could hear the testimony on TV or radio. Republicans saw the testimony as a stunt to resuscitate a non-issue, and an opportunity to prove some of their Deep State theories about the origins of the Trump-Russia story.
As a reluctant, and at times confused, Mueller testified, both sides got what they wanted, but their supporters likely heard – or willfully chose to overlook – uncomfortably contrary information in the process.
Democrats illuminated some major findings from Mueller’s Report:
The report did not exonerate the President on the charge of obstruction of justice
Some people interviewed by Mueller’s team lied, pled the 5th, destroyed evidence, and had communicated electronically in ways that could not be traced
These factors may have affected the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to prove coordination between the Trump Campaign and the Kremlin
Trump’s Campaign Manager, Paul Manafort, gave a Russian operative named Konstantin Kilimnik internal Trump Campaign strategy information and internal campaign polling data, which may have helped with the Russians’ social media activities to interfere with the 2016 Presidential election
The Trump Campaign did not try to discourage Russia’s illegal interference efforts – including hacking Clinton and Democratic emails – and in fact embraced those efforts and planned their media strategy and campaign messaging around them
Russians made approximately 120 known contacts with the Trump Campaign
After Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference began, the President publicly and privately worked to discourage key people from cooperating with the investigation
The President also encouraged key people to “stay strong” and avoid cooperating with the investigation: the President and his legal staff even suggested pardons for some
The President made multiple efforts to stop Mueller’s investigation, including asking a number of associates to fire Mueller
White House Lawyer Don McGahn was so upset at being asked to do this that he prepared to resign
The President asked McGahn to deny being asked to fire Mueller, and asked McGahn to create a written document for the White House’s records falsely stating that the request had never taken place
The President also made many efforts to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “un-recuse” himself from the Mueller investigation, because he wanted Sessions to protect him from the investigation
The Office of Legal Counsel’s guidance that a sitting President cannot be indicted factored significantly into Mueller’s decision not to charge the President with obstruction of justice
A President who has committed illegal acts can be indicted after leaving office
Other investigations that were spun off from the Mueller investigation are still in progress, which may reveal further acts of criminality
But Republican questioning also brought some important facts to light which have not been given adequate attention:
Natalia Veselnitskaya – the Russian lawyer in the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting – had hired Fusion GPS (producer of the Steele Dossier) in 2014 on behalf of her client, a Russian firm called Prevezon Holdings
From June 8-10, 2016, Veselnitskaya spent more time with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson than she did with Trump Campaign officials
The “dirt on Hillary Clinton” that Veselnitskaya was offering was information that Simpson had uncovered while working for Veselnitskaya and Prevezon Holdings
The relationship between Veselnitskaya and Simpson (whose hiring of former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele ultimately provided some of the first indications of Russian election interference) was never examined by Mueller
It is possible that the Steele Dossier contained misinformation intentionally provided to Christopher Steele by his Russian sources
Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian intelligence operative to whom Paul Manafort gave Trump Campaign polling data and strategy information, may also be an asset of the U.S. State Department
Joseph Mifsud, the alleged source for George Papadopoulos’ belief that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary, was interviewed by the FBI and lied to them three times, but remarkably was never charged
Mifsud, a professor, may be a Russian intelligence agent or a western intelligence agent
Several of the prosecutors hired by Mueller to investigate Trump had collectively given over $60,000 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign
Time will tell whether Mueller’s testimony moves the needle toward at least beginning an impeachment inquiry, but Mueller’s testimony makes clear that Donald Trump committed federal crimes that would be immediately prosecutable if he were not the President. It also makes clear that there is still more of the story that has not been uncovered. In the end, what Mueller’s testimony may most effectively prove is Americans’ ability to tune out information that they don’t want to hear.
Many of us have become numb to the nonsensical right wing “Deep State” conspiracy theories being used by Trump and his most rabid supporters to discredit and prematurely end the Mueller investigation: Robert Mueller is a criminal; it was actually Hillary Clinton who colluded with Russia; James Comey was a “Clinton fixer.” So when legitimately questionable information surfaces, many on the left shrug and write it off as more of the same. There are two issues, however, which, if we are being intellectually honest, we need to acknowledge, discuss and come to terms with.
In late 2015, the conservative publication Washington Free Beacon, whose owner was believed to be a supporter of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, hired research firm Fusion GPS to look into the background of then Presidential candidate Donald Trump. After Trump won the primary in mid 2016, the Beacon understandably stopped paying Fusion to research Trump. However, Perkins Coie, a law firm representing the Clinton Campaign, soon began paying Fusion GPS to continue the research.
By that point, according to Fusion founder Glenn Simpson’s testimonies to the House and Senate, Fusion had compiled enough information to see that the most curious aspects of Trump’s background were related to his potential organized crime connections and his activities in Russia.
To help perform further research into these matters, in mid 2016, Fusion contracted former-British-spy-turned-consultant Christopher Steele, with whom Simpson had worked on previous research projects, who was a top expert on Russia with a reputation for producing accurate information, and who had a number of longtime trusted sources within Russia for gathering his information. Over the next several months, Steele talked with his sources and produced 17 memos for Fusion GPS about Trump-Russia that came to be known as “the Steele dossier.”
According to Simpson, Steele quickly became so alarmed by what he was uncovering – an active plot by Russia to put a Kremlin-compromised President in the Oval Office – that he told Simpson that he considered it his professional duty to contact U.S. law enforcement immediately. Simpson told Steele that he did not know anyone that he could contact. Steele said that he had connected in the past with law enforcement in the U.S. on other cases and would take care of the notification. Steele followed through on this in early July of 2016.
The part of the narrative that becomes questionable is that one person to whom Steele reached out – either in July or later on – appears to have been a longtime acquaintance, Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Allegedly without Steele’s awareness, Bruce Ohr’s wife Nellie coincidentally happened to be one of a tiny group of people (countable on one’s fingers) who was also being employed by Fusion GPS to investigate Donald Trump. And Bruce Ohr was allegedly unaware that his wife was doing this work. And Glenn Simpson was apparently unaware of who Nellie Ohr’s husband was. The coincidences and lack of awareness of others’ activities within this small group of people seems remarkable.
Another issue that is grossly under-reported in the mainstream media is the connection between Fusion GPS and the Trump Tower meeting.
Around 2013, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya retained U.S. law firm Baker Hostetler to assist her with a money laundering case that the U.S. government had brought against her client, Prevezon Holdings, a company based on the island of Cyprus. (Cyprus is notorious as a place where wealthy Russians launder illegally-obtained money). In Spring of 2014, Baker hired Fusion GPS to do research for the Prevezon case. Fusion’s Prevezon research led to questions about financial dealings of a hedge fund manager named William Browder.
William Browder has a long adversarial history with Vladimir Putin. In the mid 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, an atmosphere of lawlessness pervaded Russia. Wealthy oligarchs took advantage of the situation to dramatically increase their wealth by grabbing up former state-owned assets, and ethically unrestrained entrepreneurs found ways to get rich quickly as well. Browder allegedly made his own fortune by creating a hedge fund, Hermitage Capital, that assured investors that the Russian companies it invested in were uniquely law abiding and therefore less likely to be prone to unpredictable plunges in value.
To offer this assurance, Browder would investigate the companies. If he found wrongdoing, he reported it to the Russian government. This was looked upon favorably by a rising Vladimir Putin, who saw Browder’s investigations as a way to ensure that Russian businesses and oligarchs were not cheating the Russian government out of the tax money that it deserved.
As Putin’s power grew, Putin’s view of Browder’s activities changed sharply. According to Browder, Putin had begun directly taking a percentage of all illicit money “earned” by the Russian mafia and oligarchs, and Browder’s exposure of corruption was getting in the way.
In 2005, Browder was arrested and deported from Russia as a “threat to national security.” Eighteen months later, the Russian Interior Ministry raided the Moscow office of Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, and seized “all the corporate documents connected to the investment holding companies of the funds that [Browder] advised.”
Browder hired attorney Sergei Magnitsky to investigate. Magnitsky determined that the documents were being used to re-register Browder’s holding companies to a convicted murderer named Viktor Markelov, and $230 million in taxes allegedly paid to the Russian government by Browder’s companies had been diverted elsewhere.
When Magnitsky notified the Russian authorities of this crime, he was jailed, where he remained for over a year under increasingly terrible conditions. He was regularly pressured, unsuccessfully, by the Russian government to sign a statement that he had stolen the $230 million from Browder. On November 16, 2009, Magnitsky was chained in an isolated prison cell and beaten to death by eight guards.
To avenge the man who had died on his behalf, Browder pushed the U.S. legislature to enact what eventually became known as the Magnitsky Act, which passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by then President Obama in November of 2012. The Act froze the U.S.-based assets of all Russian oligarchs (and Putin) who were believed to have been responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Russian oligarchs tend to invest their illicit wealth in law-governed countries like the U.S. where the wealth is safer than it would be in Russia.
As part of his retaliation against the U.S. for passing the Magnitsky Act, Putin banned the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. That is what is being referred to when a Trump claims to have been merely talking with a Russian about “adoption.” Putin wants the Magnitsky Act repealed or weakened so that he can regain access to a large chunk of his wealth.
Natalia Veselnitskaya’s client, Prevezon Holdings was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of laundering millions of dollars in New York real estate, using money from a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme. If that number sounds familiar, it is because it is the amount that Browder alleges that he had paid in taxes to the Russian government but which had instead been misappropriated by the Kremlin. Browder was the one who had tipped off the U.S. Department of Justice that Prevezon had laundered the money.
The situation appears to be that Browder’s $230 million in taxes was received by the Russian government, who then denied that he had paid them. The Kremlin proceeded to launder the money to legitimize it/make it usable, and one of the parties through whom the money was laundered was Prevezon Holdings. Another interpretation is that Browder had never actually paid the taxes, but had instead used one of his many overseas tax shelters to hide the money.
In the New York case, Prevezon settled out of court for $5.9 million without admitting guilt, leading one to believe that the first interpretation above is closer to the truth.
During Fusion’s research for the Prevezon case, information about Browder’s financial dealings raised questions in the mind of Fusion founder Glenn Simpson, and Browder was notably difficult to obtain testimony from: he ran when attempts were made to serve him with a subpoena to testify. This bizarre response would seem to indicate guilt on the part of the man who had tipped off the DOJ about Prevezon, until one realizes that Browder had very good reason to believe that Putin had put a price on his head: under such circumstances, running in response to two strange men approaching him in a parking lot seems entirely appropriate and reasonable. Assassination attempts had been made on prominent Magnitsky Act advocates as well as on Browder’s own mother.
Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya apparently believed that some of Fusion’s information about Browder and his associates could be useful as a stepping stone to improving her own standing in Russia. The information on Browder could be used in the U.S. to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Magnitsky Act’s founder, and possibly result in the repeal of the Act, which would bring Veselnitskaya into high esteem with the Kremlin.
Seeing this opportunity, Veselnitskaya reported the information to Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, in October of 2015. On February 18, 2016, Veselnitskaya registered what appears to be a fake NGO, the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGI), for the purpose of lobbying the U.S. Congress “on behalf of Russian orphans.”
On June 9, 2016, the now infamous “Trump Tower meeting” took place. Veselnitskaya and an interpreter, along with a couple of other Russians, met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton and to discuss “Russian adoptions.” The “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that Veselnitskaya appears to have offered was that the New York billionaire Ziff brothers – who were major Democratic donors – had invested with Browder. If the Ziff brothers had donated to the Clinton Campaign, Veselnitskaya reasoned, their donations would be tainted and possibly illegal because Browder had cheated the Russian government out of $230 million in taxes.
The part of this whole narrative that again seems highly coincidental is the relationship between Veselnitskaya and Fusion GPS. Veselnitskaya appears to have had only a handful of direct interactions with Fusion’s Glenn Simpson: most of the communication seems to have been indirectly through Baker Hostetler. But on the morning of June 9, 2016 – right before the Trump Tower meeting – Veselnitskaya and Simpson were in court together for a hearing related to the Prevezon case.
Simpson testified that Veselnitskaya’s English is very limited, as is his Russian, so they did little more than exchange pleasantries.
Simpson also testified that on June 10, 2016 – the day after the Trump Tower meeting – he had attended a Washington DC dinner held by Baker Hostetler attorney Mark Cymrot for people working on the Prevezon case. Again, Veselnitskaya was in attendance, but according to Simpson, she was sitting at the other end of the table from him and his wife.
In his testimonies before the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judicial Committee, Glenn Simpson comes across as straightforward, extremely forthcoming, and highly credible. Yet the fact that he – the man who was paid by the Clinton Campaign’s law firm to investigate Donald Trump – also happened to know Natalia Veselnitskaya , and was even physically in the same room with her hours before the Trump Tower meeting (where she presented information gathered by Fusion GPS for the Prevezon case) and was again in the same room with her the evening afterward seems staggeringly coincidental.
We on the left can be blindly partisan and simply accept all that we are being told about Trump-Russia. After all, a wealth of evidence points to the possibility that Trump knowingly or unknowingly helped Russian oligarchs and mafia figures launder money via his real estate empire for decades – a felony – and that Vladimir Putin is holding knowledge of this activity over Trump’s head. A U.S. President being blackmailed in such a manner by a hostile foreign power is a profound danger to the security of our nation.
However, when we come across inconsistencies and bizarre coincidences like the Bruce and Nellie Ohr issue or the Veselnitskaya/Fusion GPS issue, we also owe it to ourselves, if we have any genuine loyalty to the truth, to stop and take a serious look. What could explain these connections? Are we really just seeing shocking coincidences, or something more?
The most reasonable explanations that I can find are as follows:
Bruce and Nellie Ohr:
Nellie Ohr was hired by Fusion to comb through Russian newspapers and other public record Russian documents for information about Trump because she was fluent in Russian.
Nellie Ohr did not know of Christopher Steele’s involvement with Fusion, nor did Steele know of hers, because it was Simpson’s practice not to let his employees know who Fusion’s contractors were (and vice versa) unless absolutely necessary. This was done to avoid tainting information gathered from different sources. If two sources found differing information on a particular point, that could be helpful to narrow in on that point as a place where more questions needed to be asked to get an accurate picture.
Nellie Ohr did not tell her husband Bruce what she was working on for Fusion because she was under a confidentiality agreement, and as a professional, she took that agreement seriously.
The information that Steele was uncovering was not shared with any Fusion employees other than Simpson. Nellie Ohr was unaware of the content (or possibly even the existence) of Steele’s memos. Therefore there was no reason for Nellie Ohr to feel the need to tell her husband about her work: the information that she was uncovering was far less dramatic.
Nellie Ohr never told Glenn Simpson that her husband was a Department of Justice official because it was not relevant to her job at Fusion, and because DOJ and other high level law enforcement officials generally do not like their identities to be widely known, for security reasons.
The coincidence that Nellie Ohr’s husband happened to be Steele’s contact in the U.S. Department of Justice.
The coincidence that Bruce Ohr didn’t put two and two together to then ask his wife more about the research work that she was doing at Fusion.
Veselnitskaya probably had no idea that she would discover something about Putin’s public enemy #1, Wililiam Browder, when she was first hired by Prevezon Holdings: Prevezon was simply another legal case to her.
She engaged Baker Hostetler to help with the case because of her poor English, likely unfamiliarity with the intricacies of U.S. law, and the need for her client to have quality representation in a U.S. court.
Baker Hostetler hired Fusion to do investigative research for the Prevezon case, because money laundering cases are complicated and require a level of quality research that needed to be outsourced.
When Browder’s name turned up in Fusion’s research, Veselnitskaya recognized the name (Browder is famously vilified in Russia – there are even movies about him) and saw an opportunity for herself. From then on, for her the Prevezon case became partially a case for her client, but also a means to collect information that she could use to curry favor with the Kremlin.
Simpson was unaware of how Veselnitskaya was using his research.
Simpson was handling the case for Baker Hostetler in the same way that he would for any other client: doing research, analyzing it and passing it to his client, Baker Hostetler.
Veselnitskaya’s visa to enter the U.S. had been previously revoked, but she was able to get into the U.S. because she was the primary attorney for a case that was being tried in a U.S. court. That is why the Trump Tower meeting had to be scheduled for the same day that she was in court for the Prevezon case.
Simpson was in the same courtroom as her that day because, as a researcher for the Prevezon case, he had the greatest wealth of detailed knowledge to reinforce Prevezon’s position.
Veselnitskaya and Simpson were at the same Washington DC party the next evening because they had both been important parts of the Prevezon case.
While Fusion GPS has a central role in both the Trump Tower meeting and the Steele dossier, and there was even a brief overlap in the timeframes of the Prevezon project and the Trump project, there was no bleed-over between the two projects within Fusion GPS itself: Simpson kept all of Fusion’s projects separate to avoid information from one project contaminating another.
The coincidence that the Trump Tower meeting involved people and information connected to the same tiny research firm that had later been hired by the Clinton Campaign’s law firm to investigate Donald Trump.
While it is sane and reasonable to dismiss the wild conspiracy theories coming out of the extreme right in their efforts to defend an indefensible President, it is also important to look at factual inconsistencies in the narrative that many Americans believe to be true. While the issue of Bruce and Nellie Ohr and the connection of Fusion GPS to Natalia Veselnitskaya can be explained, they require acceptance of an uncomfortable amount of coincidence.
Donald Trump’s July 16th press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin should leave no doubt in the minds of objective observers that Putin holds a powerful sway over America’s President. Such bewildering influence by a hostile foreign adversary poses a major risk to our national security. At best, our President is woefully gullible. At worst – and given his body language, this seems a safe assumption – he is being blackmailed or otherwise compromised by the Russians.
President Trump’s Helsinki performance has left our nation – and our long-time allies – wondering: what was agreed to in that one-on-one meeting? Has a secure back channel now been established between the two leaders to enable ongoing real-time conversations, instructions and coercion that avoid detection by our national security agencies? Was the Helsinki meeting recorded by Putin to use to further blackmail the President? Has Trump been given a strategy to secretly help Putin and Russia’s oligarchs get at their money despite strong American sanctions like the Magnitsky Act (LINK)? What other instructions might have been given by this former Soviet intelligence officer, who would love to see the downfall of the U.S. and collapse of the West as retribution for the fall of the U.S.S.R.?
It seems increasingly possible that the person currently at the helm of our nation is not someone who should be trusted with our nation’s interests. Real but yet-unseen damage may already have been done since his inauguration. The danger to our country in a situation like this cannot be understated: Putin is not our friend.
Our Constitution thankfully provides a useful but flawed remedy to a corrupt, compromised, incapacitated, or mentally ill President: as we all know by now, the 25th Amendment allows Congress to remove the President from office as the ultimate check on his or her power. However, I believe that we may well be in a situation unforeseen by our great Constitution – one that can lead to a catastrophic crisis for America.
Most of us have watched Congress’s ongoing feeble or even enabling responses to President Trump through the lens of American politics. We believe that they are being blindly partisan, and that they are willfully putting their own re-election and the Republican Party over the wellbeing of the country. We should pray that this is all that we are seeing.
Glenn Simpson is a man who was hired by a DNC law firm to gather intelligence on Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and who hired former British spy Christopher Steele as part of his information gathering. Simpson was brought before the House Intelligence Committee on November 14, 2017and gave lengthy, detailed and credible testimony about his activities.
At one point, he described why he left his position as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. His beat of choice was Russian corruption and the possibility of Russian involvement in Washington DC. But the Wall Street Journal had lost interest in this topic: it was not as “sexy” and headline-grabbing as terrorism in the years immediately following 9/11.
Yet in talking to his sources in 2009, Glenn Simpson was hearing that “everyone said the Russians are back, and they are buying influence in Washington left and right, and they are trying to bribe all these Congressmen.”
This observation – paired in particular with the behavior of Congresspersons like Devin Nunes (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and French Hill (R-AR) – raises the question: what if our U.S. legislature is as compromised by Russia as our President appears to be? What if members of the branch of government entrusted to be a check on Presidential power would not only be disgraced, but possibly criminally prosecuted, if the extent of Russia’s activities were fully exposed? What if the “kompromat” that Russia has on them is at the very least the funneling of Kremlin money (through American collaborators) into their campaigns?
When Congress convened on January 2, 2017 for the first time after Trump’s election, the Republican leadership’s very first move – at night, behind closed doors, with no advance discussion – was to remove independent ethics oversight for Congress. Why was that? In the strong public backlash that followed the next day, they quickly reversed themselves, but the fact that that was their first agenda item is curious.
Since Trump’s inauguration, we have also seen a startling number of U.S. Congresspersons announce that they will not run for re-election. One of those – announced a day or two after news broke of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office being raided by the FBI – is House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
I do not personally believe that Paul Ryan is directly compromised by Russia. However, I believe that he is aware of at least some of what is being held over his fellow Republican legislators. I believe that he, as Speaker of the House, has made the decision to remain silent and encourage the rest of his partisan lawmakers to do the same in order to avoid disgracing the GOP. I believe that he has decided not to seek re-election is because the weight of this is worrisome and uncomfortable for him, and he would prefer to just fade into the woodwork before the Trump indictments start rolling in.
In a way, this is complicity. If one were to watch the murder of a person, rather than a democracy, without notifying law enforcement of what they knew, one would be held legally responsible for that decision. And the longer that one held to that decision, the more legally culpable one would become. This may be the difficult position in which some or all Republican legislators who are not directly compromised by Russia find themselves. They all may have something to feel deeply uneasy about.
If Congress is compromised or complicit, it would be absolutely outrageous – a betrayal of our country by those whom we have most entrusted to protect it. There would be an impulse to see legislators punished severely for their actions, for selling out their country – our country – particularly as they spent years hypocritically branding people the left as spineless and soft on America’s foreign enemies.
Yet in venting our moral outrage, we are still stuck with the concrete legal problem: we need those same compromised or complicit Republican legislators – elected to a majority in both houses of Congress – to hold the executive branch in check. Depending on the outcome of the Mueller investigation, we may need them to not just be a check, but to actually remove Donald Trump from office. And if the President knows that the legislature is compromised, he could threaten to take them all down with him – his own form of kompromat. Which puts us in the silent stalemate between branches of government that I believe we have already been in for over a year.
Although our Constitution does not provide us with a legal remedy for this situation, we can be grateful to countries like South Africa who have provided us with a workable model for addressing and moving forward from horrific acts: amnesty.
My proposal is this.
If, as anticipated by many, Mueller’s investigation turns up evidence of impeachable acts by the President, all sitting members of the House and Senate – Republican and Democrat – should immediately be granted a short period (say, five days) during which they can confess to any ways that Russia has compromised them (including being silent about their knowledge of fellow compromised legislators) and any actions that they took because they were compromised – without fear of criminal prosecution.
These will not be detailed confessions, but merely public acknowledgments of how they have been compromised, so that the truth gets quickly out into the open. Anyone who is guilty but has not admitted so by the end of this short amnesty period can and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Congress should then be required to swiftly take the appropriate action to remove the President from office.
As part of their amnesty terms, those Congresspersons who have confessed must agree to step down from office at the end of their term, and to cooperate fully with law enforcement and U.S. intelligence to determine exactly how they became compromised and what they know of any Russian operations, so that those operations can be thwarted, neutralized or minimized by our national security community.
The advantages of this solution are many:
It enables our country to move through a dire and unforeseen crisis gracefully and with minimal disruption
It helps restore confidence in the functioning of our system going forward – at least in regard to Russian influence
It ensures that most or all of the compromised or complicit legislators – whom we might not otherwise know are compromised or complicit – will not continue to serve
It removes more bad (or unreliable) actors from the system than would other solutions
It avoids a lengthy, costly and ultimately less effective federal investigation of potentially hundreds of sitting Congresspersons
It makes the whole truth abundantly clear to all – including Trump supporters who may be in deep denial – and thereby reduces the domestic strife that may arise in the wake of President Trump being removed from office
It transparency reassures America’s allies that we can once again be trusted not to be pushing Russia’s agenda
It gives our intelligence community a clear and thorough understanding of what has been done and what to watch for in the future
By putting the truth out in the open for all to see, it sets the stage for a national conversation that may help heal and reunite a deeply divided nation
One thing seems certain: Donald Trump may be at times persuaded to say the right thing regarding Vladimir Putin, but waiting for him to do the right thing on the issue of Russia is a waste of time. Putin will always ultimately come out ahead of America with this President.
Disclaimer: This is an in-depth look at the Fusion GPS Trump-research-related parts of Glenn Simpson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 17, 2017 and before the House Intelligence Committee on November 14, 2017. The information below was presented by Glenn Simpson in his testimony, and is not being represented here as either fact or as the opinion of the webmaster unless specifically stated. All statements and assertions should be read as if prefaced by “Glenn Simpson states that …” Any content that I add will be surrounded by [brackets] and will likely include a link or reference to the source.
What is the narrative that Glenn Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee about his Trump research?
Glenn Simpson’s research firm, Fusion GPS, was hired by a Republican client to investigate Donald Trump as part of an opposition research campaign. After Trump won the primary, Fusion continued doing the research for a Democratic client. Simpson declined to disclose whether either client paid him directly for the work or if he was paid through an intermediary. [The Committee and Simpson’s attorneys had apparently agreed in advance that certain topics – names of his clients, communications with his clients, and naming sources of information – would not be pursued in any questions.]
Fusion’s research into Trump began in September or October of 2015 with a general exploration of public records regarding Trump’s businesses, associates, finances, bankruptcies, and “offshore or third world suppliers of products that he was selling.” The research “evolved somewhat quickly into issues of his relationships with organized crime figures,” including connections to Italian organized crime and a relationship with Russian organized crime figure Felix Sater.
Some of Trump’s money seemed to be coming from Kazakhstan and other unusual places, and the money couldn’t be accounted for. Trump also seemed to take a lot of business trips to Russia, but little if anything seemed to come from them, which Simpson found odd.
After the Prevezon case ended, Fusion hired Edward Baumgartner – who had worked on the Prevezon case and spoke Russian – as a subcontractor to do work such as researching Russian language newspapers for information about Paul Manafort and his work in Ukraine for now-exiled pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych. There were no other subcontractors who worked on both the Trump and Prevezon projects.
In May or June of 2016, once Trump was clearly the Republican nominee, Fusion’s Trump research ended for the Republican client and then resumed for a Democratic client. By that time, the research that could be done via public records had largely been exhausted, and a handful of areas of interest had also emerged, one of which was Trump’s business dealings in Russia.
Fusion hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele as a subcontractor to do “human intelligence” (interviewing people), a skill that is generally outside of Fusion’s data-and-document-driven strengths. Steele was hired specifically to obtain more in-depth information than could be determined from public records regarding Trump’s activities in Russia and other former Soviet countries, where Trump appeared to have relationships with Russian organized crime figures and other “colorful characters.”
Steele was the former “lead Russianist” with MI6 (Britain’s equivalent of the CIA), was a highly regarded investigator and an expert at identifying Russian disinformation. Simpson and Steele had worked together on other projects since 2009. Steele was known as “a person who delivered quality work in very appropriate ways … he’s basically a Boy Scout.” He “has a sterling reputation as a person who doesn’t exaggerate, doesn’t make things up, doesn’t sell baloney …. Everyone I know who’s ever dealt with him thinks he’s quite good. That would include people from the U.S. government.” Asked if credibility with the FBI was one reason for Fusion hiring Steele, Simpson said no. Consistent with Fusion practices to ensure integrity of gathered information, Christopher Steele and Ed Baumgartner were unaware that each other was working on the case.
Between June-October 2016, Steele created 16 memos that he sent to Simpson, as well as a 17th memo in December 2016, after the election. Steele told Simpson that he did not believe that what he had reported in the memos was disinformation.
The 17th memo was created after Steele’s engagement with Fusion GPS had ended, because Steele’s sources were still continuing to provide him with information. It is unclear whether that 17th memo was sent to Simpson or to someone else. Steele’s attorneys had apparently stated in the past that this 17th memo had been given to a “senior United Kingdom government national security official” although Simpson expressed ignorance of this.
Whenever Steele sent in a memo, Simpson would generally verify it against information that Fusion had already gathered through other sources such as public documents, and Steele’s information matched up. Neither Simpson nor Fusion edited or altered Steele’s memos in any way. Steele did not name the human sources of his information for the memos, and Simpson does not believe that he paid them for information.
Simpson had expected that Steele’s memos might reveal evidence of corruption in Trump’s overseas dealings. Instead, Steele’s first memo raised alarms that the Russian government had been “cultivating and supporting” Trump for at least 5 years, that Trump and his inner circle had been accepting a “regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his democratic and other political rivals,” and that Trump was also sufficiently compromised by the FSB (under direction of Putin) that he could be blackmailed, particularly with regards to a potentially videotaped sexual act in the Presidential Suite of the Moscow Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Russian intelligence is known to have recording devices in many Russian luxury hotel rooms to gather “kompromat” – compromising material – on political and business leaders. [This practice dates back to the Soviet Union and KGB, and is believed to have been used by Putin for political advancement early in his career] [New York Times]. Such a situation poses a profound danger to the national security of the United States if a U.S. President or other major U.S. political figure can be blackmailed by a hostile foreign power.
Steele’s first memo also noted that the Kremlin had compiled a dossier of years of recorded phone conversations and other records of Hillary Clinton, mainly revealing her expressing opinions that differed from her public positions.
Simpson was aware of the Kremlin’s hostility toward Hillary Clinton and of Russia’s interference in recent European elections, and was also aware of the possibility of meddling in a U.S. election by a foreign government. While an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal, Simpson had exposed a Chinese effort to swing the 1996 Presidential election to Bill Clinton.
Additionally, Simpson recalled a story that he had written as a WSJ journalist about Oleg Daripaska (Russian oligarch suspected to have ties to organized crime) meeting with John McCain (R-AZ) before the 2008 election. And as a journalist, Simpson had written stories about Paul Manafort’s connections to the (pro-Putin) Party of Regions in Ukraine, to pro-Putin ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and to Russian oligarchs suspected of corruption. The Manafort stories had sprung from earlier stories that Simpson had written about the Kremlin collaborating with the Russian mafia to skim money from the gas trade between Ukraine and Russia. All of these things came to mind for Simpson as he pondered Steele’s first memo.
Steele believed the information in this memo to be potentially evidence of a crime in progress and a matter of national security concern to the United States. He considered it his professional obligation to report it to U.S. authorities, and expressed this to Simpson. Simpson was hesitant at first, but eventually said that Steele should report it if he felt that it was his obligation. Steele reached out to a contact that he had at the FBI. Simpson’s perspective was “to me this was like, you know, you’re driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911.” Simpson did not seek anyone else’s approval [one would assume that “anyone else” would include Fusion’s Democratic client] to authorize Steele to go to the FBI.
Simpson did not know if Steele gave the FBI the actual written memo, and did not know if Steele had actually requested that the FBI open an investigation. Simpson only later learned from news reports that Steele first contacted the FBI in the first week of July [a few days after Simpson had agreed that he should do so]. Simpson wondered for months if the FBI had actually done anything with the information: he knew that the Department of Justice has rules against law enforcement getting involved in the middle of a campaign, but he also increasingly believed that a serious crime was in progress regarding the hacking of the DNC and others.
In mid to late September, the FBI contacted Steele and said that they wanted all of the information that he had, so Steele met with them in Rome (at FBI expense) and debriefed them. Simpson testified that the FBI told Steele that they “had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump Campaign source” independent of Steele’s sources, and that they believed that Steele’s information was credible. Later in the testimony, Simpson said that it was unclear if the FBI was the one who told Steele about this, and that he was also unclear if the FBI’s other source was someone in the Trump Campaign or the Trump Organization.
Simpson was nonetheless uncertain and deeply concerned about how seriously the FBI was in investigating Steele’s findings. This concern came to a head when the New York Times ran a story on October 31, 2016 stating that the FBI had been investigating Trump-Russia connections and had found nothing. [New York Times] Shortly after that, Steele cut off his relationship with the FBI, believing that the FBI was possibly somehow being influenced by the Trump Campaign for political purposes. After the election, the FBI contacted Steele about possibly being paid by them to continue his investigative work, but he declined.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee had a back and forth with Simpson and his attorneys regarding whether the non-disclosure agreement between Fusion and Orbis (the company that Steele worked for) forbade Simpson and/or Steele from giving the memos and/or the information in them to the press or to law enforcement. Republicans also pointed out that in a lawsuit against Steele, Steele’s attorneys had stated that Steele and Fusion, at Fusion’s instruction, had given “off-the-record briefings” in September and October 2016 to journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker, ABC, and others.
Simpson was asked if he or Fusion has provided Steele’s actual memos to their Democratic client or to Buzzfeed, the news outlet that first publicly released them. Simpson’s attorney told Simpson not to answer that question verbally, but the attorney had apparently provided a written statement to the Judiciary Committee stating that they had not provided the actual memos to those entities.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans asked a number of questions implying that Fusion’s Trump investigation was unethical, and Simpson responded:
No, the amount of Fusion’s pay or Orbis’s pay was not contingent on whether or not the FBI started an investigation.
No, to Simpson’s knowledge, Christopher Steele and Rinat Akhmetshin (HRAGI lobbyist employed by Natalia Veselnitskaya and who was at the Trump Tower meeting) did not know each other, and Akhmetshin did not work for Orbis.
No, Simpson does not believe that he discussed the existence of Fusion’s Trump investigation with Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, or anyone involved in the Prevezon case including anyone at Baker Hostetler, and does not believe that Steele did so either. Doing so would have been a violation of their non-disclosure agreements.
No, Simpson was not influenced in his actions on the Trump project by Veselnitskaya or Akhmetshin, and does not believe Steele to have been either.
After the election, Sir Andrew Wood, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, had a chance encounter with U.S. Senator John McCain and his adviser, David Kramer, at a security conference in Nova Scotia, and informed them of the dossier. Rinat Akhmetshin was listed in conference records as being in attendance at that conference, a fact of which Simpson was unaware until the Senate hearing.
It is unclear how Wood had learned of the dossier: nobody at Fusion had provided any information about it to any foreign governments. After the conference, Kramer reached out to Steele to get more information for McCain to bring to the FBI’s attention. At this point, Simpson and Steele were still unclear how seriously the FBI was taking the information or if the information had been conveyed to anyone of high rank in the FBI, so the idea of having a U.S. Senator take the information to the FBI was appealing.
Some miscellaneous information from Simpson’s testimony included:
Simpson researched Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, as well as Russian government officials Sergei Ivanov and Igor Sechin. Simpson believed Carter Page to be potentially compromised by the Kremlin.
Simpson observed that most Russians work to some degree for the Russian government and receive pensions. Simpson speculated that if those Russians were to move to the U.S., the Russian government disbursing their pensions would be an ideal way for the Russian government to launder money and get money out of Russia – a concept suggested in Steele memos #4 (2016/095) and #10 (2016/111). Simpson encouraged the House Judiciary Committee to look further into this, because there is a large amount of Russian money coming into the U.S. through what Simpson believes are fake or inflated pensions. However, such payments might not be easily traceable and would fall under diplomatic privileges.
Simpson explained that “Russian organized crime is …. involved in politics and banking and there’s even a lot of connections between the mafia and the KGB or FSB and cyber crime …. Stock fraud in particular was the big thing in the U.S.”
Simpson learned of a New York court case in which the government of Kazakhstan was trying to recover billions of dollars that had allegedly been stolen during the failure of a major bank called BTA Bank. The money was allegedly laundered in Europe and the United States. Felix Sater, a real estate developer who at one time had an office in Trump Tower, appeared to be involved in some way, and there were media reports that some of the money went into Sater’s company in the building of Trump Soho.
Simpson’s review of estate taxes on Trump’s properties indicated that Trump publicly estimated his individual properties to be worth far more than he says that they are worth on his taxes, and a number of his golf courses don’t make any money.
Toward the end of testimony, Simpson was asked about Alfa Bank and its founders, Pyotr Aven, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan. Simpson had little information about them.
Prompted by his attorney, who cited the terms agreed upon by the Senate Committee prior to the testimony, Simpson did not answer a small handful of questions, mainly pertaining to names of his clients, communications with his clients, and naming sources of information. In general, he appeared to be extremely forthcoming in his 10-hour testimony.
What did Glenn Simpson tell the House Intelligence Committee about Fusion’s Trump research that he did not already say in his Senate testimony?
The Republican client who initially engaged Fusion to research Presidential candidate Donald Trump was a conservative web publication called the Washington Free Beacon. [The Beacon’s benefactor, Paul Singer, was a supporter of (then-Presidential hopeful) U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)]. [New York Times] Simpson did not believe that the Beacon was acting as a proxy for any specific candidate, but believed that they were generally from the wing of the Republican Party that was concerned about a takeover of the GOP by Trump and his supporters. Simpson also researched (then-Presidential hopeful) U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) for the Beacon during the 2016 Republican Primary.
The Beacon would sometimes ask Fusion to pass researched information on to reporters. Other times, reporters would reach out to Fusion for information, and Fusion would make sure that the Beacon authorized sharing the information with that reporter. The Beacon also provided some of Fusion’s research to reporters without necessarily notifying Fusion.
During the period when the (conservative) Beacon was Fusion’s client, the issues that surfaced about Trump with regard to Russia that raised enough questions in Simpson’s mind to warrant further exploration included:
Trump’s relationship with Felix Sater and Sater’s real estate development company Bayrock – a company that Simpson believed had ties to Russian organized crime and received “opaque” funding from Russia and other former Soviet countries. Alexander Mashkevich, a financial backer of Bayrock, is a Central Asian organized crime figure who has been involved in money laundering, the mining industry, and Kazakhstan.
The Trump campaign’s hiring of Paul Manafort, who Simpson knew had worked for Ukraine’s pro-Russia political party, and who had also successfully worked to get pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych (now exiled in Russia) elected President of Ukraine.
The “amazing number of people from the former Soviet Union who had purchased properties from Mr. Trump.” [One of them was Dmitry Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev was a wealthy Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for a staggering $95 million in 2008. Trump had paid around $41 million for it just two years earlier and had made very few improvements to it, raising questions about why Ryoboloviev had paid so much for it. The current U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross (former Vice Chair of the Bank of Cyprus) connected Rybolovlev and Trump to do the transaction.] [MSNBC]
The number of Trump properties where it was not easy to determine who the buyer was.
Various criminals buying Trump properties, including one who was running a high stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower.
The number of Trump properties that were sold at a loss shortly after they were bought.
“Patterns of buying and selling that we thought were suggestive of money laundering”
The number of trips that Trump had taken to Russia.
All of these activities started surfacing in a period in Trump’s career beginning in about 2005. Recent Trump projects that also raised questions for Simpson included a Trump development in Panama, one in Toronto, and Trump’s golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, which seemed to have a lot of opaque money coming into them and were not making any money.
The numerous Russia connections got Simpson wondering about possible connections between Trump and the Russian mafia. Simpson had learned as an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal that the Russian mafia is more sophisticated and more global in their activities than the Italian mafia – “[the Russian mafia] understand finance a lot better” – and they often create very elaborate money laundering schemes, including fake court arbitrations, commodities deals, and “securities straits” [this was probably incorrectly transcribed during testimony and was supposed to be “securities trades”] in order to make the source of the money harder to trace: “if you can think of a way to launder money, the Russians are pretty good at it.”
The Russian mafia is also involved in legitimate American businesses and the American government. Simpson had actually left the Wall Street Journal in 2009 in part because he wanted to investigate Russian involvement in Washington DC, but the Journal had lost interest in the topic. In talking to his sources at the time, Simpson found that “everyone said the Russians are back, and they are buying influence in Washington left and right, and they are trying to bribe all these Congressmen.”
The Russian mafia is “essentially under the dominion of the Russian Government and Russian Intelligence Services. And many of the oligarchs are also mafia figures.”
Putin’s rise to power basically included gaining control over the oligarchs and the Russia mafia [this account by Simpson is consistent with William Browder’s description of Putin’s rise to power, and corroborates why Putin might have initially been supportive of Browder’s efforts to expose how oligarchs were ripping off shareholders]. Everyone in Russia essentially works for Putin, and U.S. law enforcement believes this to be true of Russian mafia figures in the United States as well.
Because of this connection between organized crime and the Kremlin, if Trump’s businesses were taking in large amounts of illicit money from Russian mafia figures, the Kremlin would certainly know about it. “If people who seem to be associated with the Russian mafia are buying Trump properties or arranging for other people to buy Trump properties, it does raise a question about whether they’re doing it on behalf of the Russian government.” Knowledge by the Kremlin of such dealings by Trump or his businesses could also be used as “kompromat,” potentially giving the Kremlin leverage over Trump, particularly once Trump began running for President, and even more so once he became President.
After the Republican Primary ended and Trump was the Republican candidate, Fusion was hired by Seattle-based international law firm Perkins Cole – whose clients include the DNC – to continue researching Donald Trump. Peter Fritsch, Simpson’s business partner at Fusion, originally spoke with Perkins Cole about doing Trump research for them. Simpson was unaware if Fritsch approached Perkins about the project or vice-versa. Simpson understood his client to be Perkins Cole, and also understood that the DNC was Perkins Cole’s client in the opposition research that Fusion was doing into Trump.
By the time Perkins Cole hired Fusion, Fusion had already explored a wealth of documents and public records on Trump, and was now at a point to “develop more specific lines of inquiry.” Because Fusion was already familiar with the information gathered thus far, Fusion decided which areas were worthy of deeper investigation: “we were the architects of the research.” Simpson asserts that having Fusion determine what to research generally ensures that a client’s preconceived ideas don’t get in the way of producing an accurate picture.
Fusion’s lines of inquiry included Trump’s overseas business dealings, labor practices in his overseas factories, his tax disputes, his bankruptcies, and who some of his business partners were. Simpson stated that “We never set out to investigate whether Donald Trump or anyone else was engaged in sexual activity for the sort of practical reason that I just didn’t think it was a useful subject to investigate. I investigate business stuff and financial crime and corruption and those kind of things. That’s my gig. So people came to us with stories that we never pursued.”
Regarding Simpson’s relationship with Christopher Steele, Simpson originally met Steele while living in Brussels, Belgium – a location that facilitated Simpson’s reporting on one of his biggest areas of interest, organized crime and corruption in the former Soviet Union. This interest had continued after Simpson left the Wall Street Journal in 2009. By then, Simpson’s Russia/ex-Soviet focus had become a rather obscure topic in an age where most U.S. media attention abroad focused on al-Qaeida and the Middle East. A mutual friend, who knew that Steele shared this interest in Russia, introduced Simpson to Steele.
Steele was paid by Fusion for his work on the Trump project. Fusion billed Perkins Cole for Steele’s time as one of the expenses of Fusion’s work (in other words, as an outside consultant, not as a full-time Fusion employee).
Christopher Steele can speak Russian, and told Simpson that when he gathers information, he is aware that he is being given some misinformation, and does his best to filter that out before passing it on to his client (in this case, Fusion).
Simpson believes that Steele did not personally go to Russia to do his research for the Trump project. Steele had not billed Fusion for any trips to Russia, and it would also be dangerous for Steele to go there, because he had been previously exposed as a former member of British intelligence who had worked in Moscow. So instead, Simpson believes that Steele hired paid subcontractors in or from Russia who could travel around and ask questions without raising suspicion. The people that those subcontractors spoke to (in bars, etc.) were not paid for information, and were likely not told that they were being asked questions as part of a paid project.
Simpson did not know who Steele’s subcontractors were, and Simpson did not thoroughly verify their information. He trusted Steele’s expertise in filtering out disinformation and Steele’s reputation for obtaining quality information. Verification by Simpson consisted of checking Steele’s information against Simpson’s knowledge of events from public documents that Fusion had researched for the case. Simpson found nothing in Steele’s reports that was contradicted by publicly available information.
While Simpson normally edits and provides analysis of field memos from a subcontractor and incorporate it into an overall report, the information provided by Steele was so shocking and concerning that Simpson just left it raw: all of the memos are exactly what Steele sent him. The 17th Steele memo came in after the election, and Fusion was not paid for it.
Fusion’s client did not direct or authorize Simpson or Steele to go to the FBI: that was Steele’s decision, which Simpson had assented to.
Going to the FBI
Because Steele’s information, by its nature, could not be conclusively and definitively proven with official documents, Simpson was not certain at first whether Steele’s information rose to the level of certainty to take it to law enforcement, but after consideration, on July 1 or 2 Simpson consented to Steele taking his info to the FBI. Describing the situation in which he and Steele found themselves, Simpson said “We threw a line in the water and Moby Dick came back, and we didn’t know what to do with it at first.”
On July 4, Steele went to the FBI, and informed Simpson of this shortly thereafter. Steele told Simpson that the FBI thanked him and said that they would be in touch if they needed to follow up. Simpson believes that Steele likely mentioned to the FBI that he had uncovered the information in the course of work for Fusion GPS on behalf of a Democratic client, but does not know for certain if that disclosure was made.
The FBI contacted Steele before the election, but did not contact Fusion before the election.
After FBI Director Janes Comey’s October 29, 2016 announcement that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton, and the October 31, 2016 New York Times story that the FBI had found no ties between Trump and Russia, Steele and Simpson “were, frankly, you know, very scared for the country and for ourselves and felt that if we could give it to someone else, we should, higher up.”
After the election, Steele told a friend – a U.S. Prosecutor named Bruce Ohr – about what he had uncovered during his work for Fusion, and suggested that Ohr contact Simpson. Around Thanksgiving, Ohr did contact Fusion to get information for the Department of Justice. [According to Fox News, Ohr’s wife Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion on Trump-related issues during the summer of 2016.] [Fox News]
Concerned that the FBI was possibly being unduly influenced behind the scenes and that Russia, a hostile foreign power, was in the process of swaying the election, Steele and Simpson also decided to go to the major media again with their Trump-Russia info.
The Meeting With Journalists
The journalists that Simpson and Steele had met with in September 2016 were generally national security reporters, not political reporters, because Simpson and Steele were concerned that they had stumbled on a national security issue. At the time, Simpson assumed that Clinton was going to win the election, so there was “no urgency to it” – he just wanted reporters to start looking into it because it was concerning. He was aware that the reporters would likely not be doing a story on it before the election, because “when you get past Labor Day, people stop publishing stories that could be perceived as a late hit or an October surprise.”
And in fact there was little coverage of it.
Simpson believes that Perkins Cole would generally have known that his conversations with reporters in the summer of 2016 were informed by the Steele dossier, but he would not have needed to clear every such conversation with Perkins Cole.
Regarding Buzzfeed getting the Steele dossier, Simpson said (under oath) “Well, to just put it on the record, we were not the ones that gave this document to Buzzfeed, and I was not happy when this was published. I was very upset. I thought it was a very dangerous thing and that someone had violated my confidences.” Simpson said that he had his suspicions about who might have passed the dossier to Buzzfeed, but would not share that speculation in his testimony.
Republicans asked Simpson if he believed that, based on the evidence that he and Steele had gathered, Simpson “could conclusively say as fact that the Russian Government and the Trump Campaign were colluding with each other to beat Hillary Clinton.” Simpson said no, and that even with information publicly known now, such an assertion cannot be made, but since the election, there has been a clear pattern of secretive contacts and other odd behavior that “supports the broad allegation of some sort of an undisclosed political or financial relationship between the Trump Organization and people in Russia.”
Trump’s Russian Connections
In Simpson’s deeper research of Trump associates, he found more key Russian connections, including:
A Trump-linked Russian linguist named Sergei Millian (aka Siarhei Kukuts – his name before moving to Atlanta). Millian ran the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce (Russians have used such groups as intelligence operations), and claimed to have worked for the Russian Foreign Ministry in the past. He boasted of being an exclusive agent for Trump in Russia, and claimed to have sold hundreds of million of dollars in Trump properties to Russians. He was also connected with Russotrudnichestvo, believed by the FBI to be a front for the Russia’s foreign intelligence agency SVR. Millian was also linked to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, who appeared to have a lot of connections in the former Soviet Union and to Russian organized crime figures in New York and Florida.
Around 2003/2004, Trump was having trouble getting bank loans for buying or developing property, but was able to get credit if he could show that he had already pre-sold a certain percentage of units. Russians were willing to vouch for those pre-sales. For a project in Panama, a number of Russian gangsters agreed in advance to purchase condos there, which enabled Trump to get a bond from Bear Stearns. In addition to getting funding, the goal of such “pre-sales” was to hook in additional legitimate condo buyers who would believe that the project already had a lot of committed interest from other buyers. In Panama, the alleged Russian buyers signed paperwork, but never paid. Simpson believes that the project was built, but went “belly up.” A similar arrangement with pre-sales to Russians took place with Trump’s Toronto project.
The Agalarovs (who organized the Trump Tower meeting) appeared to be associated with people involved in major money laundering activity in New York in the 1990s. The Agalarovs had come to the United States from Russia around the fall of the Soviet Union, during which period, many powerful Russians came to the United States to launder money.
Based on what Simpson knows about the Agalarovs and Russian intelligence, he now believes that it is reasonable to assume that the Trump Tower meeting, organized by Aras Agalarov, was part of a Russian intelligence operation.
The Kushners are ethnic Russian and have a number of connections with Russians who immigrated to New York in the 1970s during the Refusenik era.
Howard Lorber, a real estate investor who did a lot of deals in Russia when things were fairly “wild” after the fall of the Soviet Union, is someone who Trump considers a good friend. Lorber and Bennett LeBow “introduced Trump to Russia.”
Trump had been to Russia a minimum of 4-5 times since the late Soviet years. Simpson found it odd that Trump made a number of “opaque” trips to Russia without coming back with a deal. Simpson initially thought that perhaps Trump’s lawyers were preventing him from going through with any deals out of concern that he would be violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which makes it unlawful for U.S. citizens to bribe foreign government officials to get business. Simpson later concluded that money was actually coming out of Russia and being invested in Trump’s properties in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Simpson believed that Felix Sater, a friend of Trump, had connections to Russian organized crime. Simpson also believed that Sater’s company, Bayrock – which developed the Trump Soho Hotel – was involved in “illicit financial business activity and had organized crime connections.” Simpson had also noticed a general shift from Trump being associated with Italian mafia figures early in his career to Russian mafia figures starting in the 1990s. Notably, despite Sater’s involvement with developing Trump Soho and having an office in Trump Tower, Donald Trump has said that he is not sure that he would recognize Sater if he saw him.
Trump Jr. had gone to Russia a number of times, and had also gone to Kazakhstan for reasons that could not be determined. He had also gone to Latvia.
Regarding Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who had inexplicably bought a run-down Palm Beach mansion from Trump for over twice what Trump had paid for it just two years earlier, Simpson had initially believed that that transaction was part of an overall pattern of excessive spending by Rybolovlev in order to prevent his ex-wife from accessing his money. However, Simpson later learned that Rybolovlev was closely connected to Igor Sechin, described by Simpson as “Putin’s No. 1 compadre in the kleptocracy.” Sechin apparently helped Rybolovlev leave Russia with billions of dollars.
Simpson’s conclusions about Trump possibly being involved in organized crime resulted from a large amount of factual evidence that was suggestive of an organized crime connection. However, due to Simpson’s lack of legal authority to subpoena people, etc., his conclusions not completely provable through documents and data.
Simpson’s Suggestions for Further Investigation
Simpson was asked for his thoughts on areas that the House Intelligence Committee should explore further. His response included:
Records (potentially subpoenaed if necessary) from banks, real estate agents, and title companies. Simpson had not gone after bank records because doing so would be illegal due to financial privacy laws, and because he did not have governmental subpoena power. Such records could help determine if Trump properties had been used for money laundering, which Russia could be using to blackmail the President.
Of particular interest would be Deutsche Bank’s records related to the characters involved. [Deutsche Bank had been one of the only financial institutions willing to loan money to Trump after he filed for bankruptcy.] [Business Insider]
The possibility of an “unacknowledged relationship between the Trump people and the UKIP people and that the path to WikiLeaks ran through that.”
Russian intelligence defectors living in the United States: ask what they think is going on.
The travel records of people in Trump’s circle.
The “Manafort-Stone-Trump relationship.” Roger Stone and Manafort worked in Ukraine for some “bad guys” with Arthur Finkelstein around 2005-2006. Finkelstein went on to work for pro-Putin Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban.
Irakle Kaveladze, a Russian who was at the Trump Tower meeting. Simpson believes that Kaveladze and the Agalarovs have been involved in money laundering since the 1990s, and have laundered KGB money.
A couple weeks in August 2016 when Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump were in the Hamptons. Dmitry Rybolovlev’s plane was close by, and Ivanka and Jared disappeared for a few days. Rybolovlev’s plane landed in Dubrovnik (Croatia), on August 12, and Jared and Ivanka reappeared in Dubrovnik. “There had been rumors of meetings between Trump people and Russians on yachts off Dubrovnik.”
The relationship between Jared/Ivanka and Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire.
A female attorney in Florida [whose name Simpson could not recall during testimony] who used to work for Gazprom, had ties to Michael Cohen, and played some role in distributing Russian pension payments.
The oligarchs associated with the school in Russia where Carter Page spoke in July 7, 2016. Simpson believed that a Russian intelligence agent named Evgeny Buryakov had tried to recruit Carter Page, and that Page had been a long-time target of Russian intelligence.
Alex Shnaider, a Russian-born Canadian national who was a partner of Trump in developing Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto. Simpson says that Shnaider’s father-in-law, Boris Birshtein, was important in the history of the alliance between the KGB and the Russian mafia, and managed the KGB’s offshore funds after the fall of the Soviet Union, mainly at Romania-based Raiffeisen Bank.
The Intersection of Prevezon and Trump
Questions inevitably were asked of Simpson about his having worked with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower.
Simpson never shared any of Christopher Steele’s info with Natalia Veselnitskaya or even with most of his own staff at Fusion. None of the info that Fusion used in its Trump research came from Veselnitskaya.
“I would certainly agree with the observation that for these matters to have intersected in the way that they did is, you know, remarkable. And it caught me totally by surprise, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means, if it means anything.”
Simpson found that Trump estimated his property values very low for tax purposes. However, Simpson believed that Trump was not low-balling to save money, but was in fact giving an accurate record of those property values.
Simpson believed that Nigel Farange went to the Ecuadorian Embassy more than the one time reported in the press and provided data to Julian Assange on a thumb drive.
In one of Steele’s reports, Simpson learned that the Kremlin’s the U.S. Presidential election operation was run by Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB agent.
“Putin seems to be very interested in the Jewish diaspora,” ie, Jewish Russians who have emigrated to other countries.
“The Orthodox church is an arm of the Russian state now.” A lot of senior church officials are ex-KGB, and they use the church as a way to move money around.
Russia has been working on infiltrating “soft” conservative organizations, including the NRA. Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina were names that came up.
Nobody asked Simpson to research Hillary Clinton in 2015 or 2016, but she came up in the course of some of his investigative work. Simpson said that nothing in his research into the Clinton Foundation was relevant to the Russia investigation.
Simpson was asked if someone had been killed as a result of the information in the Steele dossier, and Simpson said that that was not the case. This contradicted a statement by Simpson’s attorney, Levy, during the Senate Judiciary testimony.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) mentioned that Republicans on the Committee are not letting Committee Dems in the loop on documents that are being requested from witnesses, etc.
Simpson was asked if he was currently being paid by anyone to continue the Trump research. He refused to answer.
Simpson’s testimony about Fusion’s Trump research provides a wealth of leads for journalists and law enforcement to pursue, and seems to make abundantly clear that Trump’s statement that “I have nothing to do with Russia” is false.
If Simpson’s research is accurate, it is well within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump was knowingly or unknowingly involved in money laundering during his real estate career, and in particular, money laundering for Russian oligarchs and Russian mafia figures. Because of the interconnectedness in Russia of the mafia, the oligarchs, and the Kremlin, it is likely that such activities would have come to the attention of Vladimir Putin, who would no doubt be eager to use such “kompromat” as blackmail fodder/leverage over the President of a country that Putin viewed as responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union. It follows that Putin would be supportive of such an individual’s 2016 Presidential candidacy, knowing that he could make use of such an individual in the Oval Office to sow discord and chaos, and to undermine the foundations of America’s institutions.
A particular highlight of Simpson’s testimony was the interactions with the FBI. Steele had brought the information from his first memo to the FBI in early July, 2016, after which there were apparently months that Simpson and Steele had no idea if the FBI had done anything with that information. In mid-late September, the FBI asked Steele for all of his Trump-related research, and Steele provided it, again, not knowing what, if anything, was going to be done with it. Then, less than two weeks before the election, FBI Director James Comey broke with precedent and policy to announce on October 28 that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and three days later, on October 31, Simpson and Steele read in the New York Times that the FBI had been investigating Trump for Russian connections but had found nothing – a conclusion that completely contradicted the information that Steele knew that he had given to the FBI.
At that point, one can imagine the fear and confusion that Simpson and Steele must have felt. They had provided the FBI with a large amount of credible information pointing to a huge, active operation by a hostile foreign power (with a history of deep government corruption, organized crime, and political assassinations) to support one U.S. Presidential candidate over the other. Yet bewilderingly, the FBI seemed to be publicly denying that any such operation was happening, and was instead taking unprecedented actions that would almost certainly undermine the campaign of the candidate that Russia hoped to defeat. At that moment, it certainly must have crossed the minds of Simpson and Steele that the FBI could possibly be somehow complicit in Russia’s operation or complicit with Trump’s Campaign. Realizing that the FBI knew the identities of the two men who could expose the operation – Simpson and Steele – must have resulted in an absolutely terrifying time for those two men.
Of course, the obvious questions concern the intersection of the Trump investigation and the Prevezon case. The fact that Fusion was doing paid work as part of opposition research campaign against Trump (with attention to Russia) at the same time that the Russian lawyer of Fusion’s client on another project met with Trump Campaign officials at Trump Tower to pass on research gathered by Fusion seems like an incredible coincidence. My gut tells me that it is exactly that – a coincidence – but it is certainly enough to reasonably warrant some of the “conspiracy theory” lines of questioning engaged in by House and Senate Republicans.
Another area that seems odd is the chance meeting between British citizen Sir Andrew Wood and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) after the election. According to a U.S. Representative questioning Simpson, Wood was an associate of Orbis, the company that Steele worked for. Wood bumped into McCain at a security conference in Nova Scotia and notified him of Fusion’s Trump investigation.
It seems reasonable to assume that Steele was the one who had informed Wood about the Trump research. Not knowing Wood’s role at Orbis, it may also have been reasonable for Wood to have been attending a security conference. However, the fact that Rinat Akhmetshin (Natalia Veselnitskaya‘s hired lobbyist who had been at the Trump Tower meeting) was on the roster of attendees at that same conference seems highly coincidental. Akhmetshin might have seen the event as a place to meet U.S. legislators and lobby them on behalf of HRAGI, but his surfacing at this particular event under these particular circumstances raises additional questions.
Despite these oddities, Simpson truly comes across as a credible and forthcoming witness, and it is difficult to be suspicious of him given how thoroughly and readily he responded to questions. At times, he seemed to be pushing back against his lawyers’ advice because he wanted to give even more information. It is also difficult to believe that the information that Fusion uncovered about Donald Trump does not point to an undisclosed history of potentially illegal or unethical activities between Trump and the Russians, knowledge of which would almost certainly have made its way back to the Kremlin for blackmail purposes.
– rob rünt
Read more of this special series:
The Trump-Russia Web
Disclaimer: This is an in-depth look at the Prevezon-related parts of Glenn Simpson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 17, 2017 and before the House Intelligence Committee on November 14, 2017. The information below was presented by Glenn Simpson in his testimony, and is not being represented here as either fact or as the opinion of the webmaster unless specifically stated. All statements and assertions should be read as if prefaced by “Glenn Simpson states that …” Any content that I add will be surrounded by [brackets] and will likely include a link or reference to the source.
[In 2013], Veselnitskaya hired U.S. law firm Baker Hostetler to help defend Prevezon against charges by the U.S. Department of Justice that Prevezon had been engaged in money laundering in the United States. Baker Hostetler hired Glenn Simpson’s firm, Fusion GPS, for research to help support Prevezon’s case. Fusion’s involvement in the case was directed by Baker attorney/partner Mark Cymrot.
Baker Hostetler is a well-regarded conservative law firm. They have a legal obligation to research who their clients are to ensure that the firm is not accepting payments from a foreign government. Simpson therefore assumed that Baker had done the work to make that determination before Fusion was brought into the case.
Payment of Baker Hostetler in the case was made by Prevezon, and was directed by Veselnitskaya. Baker Hostetler in turn paid Fusion. There were no direct payments to Fusion by either Prevezon or Veselnitskaya. To assist in gathering Russian language documents and locating witnesses, Fusion hired Edward Baumgartner, a Russian-speaking consultant. Baumgartner would later work on the Trump investigation for Fusion after the Prevezon case ended.
According to Prevezon, the money laundering allegations against them originated from a high-level Russian organized crime figure, Demetri Baranovsky, who had been posing as an anti-corruption campaigner in Russia and blackmailing various Russian companies. Baranovsky had threatened to expose Prevezon for money laundering. Prevezon had notified the Russian authorities of the threat, and Baranovsky was prosecuted and jailed for blackmail.
Veselnitskaya had been Prevezon’s lawyer in that case and had detailed knowledge of it. Baranovsky’s money laundering allegations against Prevezon were brought to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice by investment manager William Browder. Glenn Simpson had met Browder years earlier as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. At that time, Browder had spoken highly of Putin, and insisted that Putin was not corrupt at all – an opinion which Browder had thoroughly reversed by the time that he had contacted the DOJ about Prevezon. The DOJ investigated Browder’s allegations against Prevezon, and took the issue to trial.
Through its research for Baker Hostetler, Fusion GPS determined that Baranovsky had in fact been jailed for blackmailing. When Fusion attempted to interview Browder about the allegations, Browder refused. Baker Hostetler tried to subpoena him, but Browder denied having any presence in the U.S., and therefore claimed not to be legally obligated to respond to a subpoena. It seemed odd to Simpson that Browder would feel strongly enough about Prevezon to tip off the DOJ, but would be unwilling to testify to any of his accusations under oath. Fusion also gradually found Browder’s dealings in Russia to raise an increasing number of questions.
Fusion began researching Browder to help Baker Hostetler compel him to testify under oath in court about his role in the case. In 2014, Fusion determined that Browder’s hedge fund, the Hermitage Fund, was registered in Delaware, proving that he did in fact have a U.S. presence. Shortly after Fusion made this discovery, Browder took his name off the registration, claiming that it had been there by mistake.
Browder also claimed to own no property in the U.S., but Fusion discovered that Browder had a $10 million mansion in Aspen, Colorado, registered under the name of a shell company. Browder also owned vehicles registered at that Aspen address under his own name.
When Simpson learned that Browder would be speaking at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 2014, Fusion saw it as an opportunity to serve him with a subpoena. They hired two subcontractors to serve the subpoena in the Aspen Institute parking lot. Browder refused the subpoena, ran back to his car, and drove back to his mansion. Browder later said that the subpoena had been improperly served because he had nothing to do with the United States, and the subpoena was also improper because it was for a case in New York, but had been served in Colorado. Browder also stated that he had thought that the two men approaching him to serve the subpoena were KGB assassins coming after him.
Fusion continued its research into public records on Browder and learned that he had a number of shell companies in Cyprus and other tax havens around the world. Simpson believed that Browder was using these shell companies to channel money into Russia and to hold Russian securities. When the Panama Papers came out in 2015, Fusion also learned that in 1995, Browder had incorporated an offshore shell company in the British Virgin Islands, and had later transferred the shares from the Hermitage Fund to this shell company.
According to Simpson, “one of Putin’s primary rules for business was you can do a lot of things, but you’ve got to pay your taxes.” Simpson believes that Browder’s tax evasion in Russia was how Browder began to fall out of favor with Putin. Putin’s government prosecuted some of Browder’s shell companies and forced Browder to make a massive tax payment in 2006 [in the amount of $230 million].
During the course of Fusion’s investigation in the Prevezon case, Fusion GPS and Baker Hostetler shared information back and forth, with Baker being the central repository for information. Simpson trusted the integrity of the information that he received from Baker, due to the quality of their information on past projects. Fusion did not do any research to verify the information from Baker because “that would have been an enormous task and it would have made no sense,” since Baker was the client for whom Fusion was gathering and researching information. [Note: this means that it is possible that some of Baker’s info came from Prevezon or from Veselnitskaya without being verified.]
Baker Hostetler directed Fusion to be available as an information source to answer reporters’ questions and to actively contact the press to encourage coverage of the Prevezon case. Simpson recalled providing information to Bloomberg, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Legal 360, Financial Times, NBC, and probably Reuters, Politico, and New Republic.
William Browder turned out to be an “especially aggressive media self-promoter and promoter of his story,” so most of Fusion’s interactions with the press were reactive – responding to news outlets pursuing negative stories about Prevezon based on the story that Browder had already told the press: “a lot of what we were doing was simply responding to his wild allegations, unsupported wild allegations.” Simpson would raise questions about Browder’s credibility, pointing out to reporters that Browder was unwilling to testify to his statements in court under oath, and that he ran whenever Fusion tried to subpoena him.
Simpson peripherally knew Rinat Akhmetshin (former Russian intelligence officer, now an American lobbyist hired by Natalia Veselnitskaya to help persuade Congress to repeal the Magnitsky Act). Simpson had originally met Akhmetshin years earlier while working at the Wall Street Journal covering some stories about Kazakhstan. Akhmetshin had mentioned at that time that he had had a low level position in Russian intelligence, but Simpson was not aware of any current connections between Akhmetshin and Russian intelligence or the Russian government. In light of recent new reports, Simpson is interested to know if Akhmetshin is connected to the Russian government. Simpson was aware that Akhmetshin periodically still went to Moscow.
Akhmetshin had never hired Fusion or vice versa. Akhmetshin attended a handful of the Prevezon meetings at Baker Hostetler, but Simpson was unclear on what his role was. Baker directed Fusion to pass some of its research on to Akhmetshin, and that information was likely used in turn to help Akhmetshin in his anti-Magnitsky lobbying efforts for Veselnitskaya through her organization, HRAGI.
Ed Lieberman, an attorney specializing in international taxes, was hired by Baker Hostetler to look into tax evasion issues by William Browder and Hermitage Capital. Simpson believed that Lieberman had known Rinat Akhmetshin from college. Lieberman was now also working with Akhmetshin to lobby Congress to repeal the Magnitsky Act. Simpson was not aware of any ties between Lieberman and the Russian government.
During the course of the case, Simpson met Veselnitskaya several times. Initially, he communicated with her through Baker Hostetler about Prevezon’s extortion case against Baranovsky. Baker attorney Mark Cymrot had mentioned to Simpson that Veselnitskaya had been a prosecutor in Russia Simpson had no knowledge of her possibly being an agent for the government of Russia or Russian intelligence.
After the initial communications, Simpson saw Veselnitskaya in courtrooms and at a small handful of dinners, most of which were organized by Cymrot. Simpson spoke very little with Veselnitskaya beyond simple cordialities, because she does not speak English and he does not speak Russian.
One of the dinners was in New York on June 8, 2016, and was a dinner for people working on the Prevezon case. Veselnitskaya was at that dinner. Baker attorney John Moscow may have been there as well.
The next day, June 9, Simpson attended a court hearing in the Prevezon case. Veselnitskaya was there, possibly with Rinat Akhmetshin and translator Anatoli Samochornov. After the hearing, Simpson met with some PR people from Weber Shandwick, and then went home to his family.
[That same day, June 9, Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin, Samochornov and others met at Trump Tower in New York with Trump Jr., Manfort and Kushner. The stated purpose of that meeting had been to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton. According to Trump Jr., Veselnitskaya just wanted to talk about Russian orphans. Simpson had no awareness of that meeting at the time.]
On June 10, Mark Cymrot held a social dinner at Barcelona restaurant in Washington DC for a group of his friends. Simpson and his wife attended the dinner, and Veselnitskaya was there as well. Simpson was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Veselnitskaya, and there was “not a lot of chit-chat” between them due to the language barrier and physical distance.
After news of the Trump Tower meeting broke in the New York Times, Simpson spoke with others working on the Prevezon case (not Veselnitskaya or Akhmetshin), including Mark Cymrot, Ed Baumgartner, and Baker attorney Paul Levine, and they too were very surprised about the Trump Tower meeting. Simpson wondered if some of the information shared there had been information that he had gathered for the Prevezon case.
Simpson’s perception of Veselnitskaya was that she was “a very smart and ambitious lawyer, but not like a big political player in the Kremlin.” He recalled her regularly having problems with her visa being accepted to get into the United States.
Simpson recalls meeting Denis Katsyv, the owner of Prevezon, at a handful of meetings or client dinners, but they did not speak much – again due to the language barrier. Prevezon was described to Simpson as Baker Hostetler’s client, and Denis was introduced as Prevezon’s owner. Cymrot told Simpson that Baker had already looked into Katsyv and determined that he was a legitimate businessman who invested in real estate. Simpson accepted this assessment as credible due to the reputation of Baker Hostetler and his past dealings with them. Simpson never met Denis’s father, Pyotr, a Russian government official, and did not know about him until Fusion had to start responding to Browder’s accusations.
Simpson acknowledged knowing Chris Cooper, a public relations person [at the Potomac Square Group] who used to work at the Wall Street Journal. Simpson would occasionally refer PR work to Cooper, and encouraged Baker Hostetler to hire him to do PR work for Prevezon during the money laundering trial.
Cooper created what Browder alleges is a “fake documentary” about Browder and Magnitsky. When Cooper sought to screen the film, Browder hired an aggressive attorney and threatened a libel lawsuit against anyone offering to show the film. Newseum – a Washington DC museum dedicated to journalism and the First Amendment – was not intimidated by Browder and showed the film on June 13, 2016, just days after Veselnitskaya’s meeting at Trump Tower.
Simpson was unclear whether Prevezon or HRAGI was behind the showing, but Fusion GPS provided names of journalists and others to be added to the invitation list, and Simpson may have personally invited some journalists as well, because the film questioned Browder’s credibility, and Browder’s media efforts had been hampering Fusion in their work for Baker on the Prevezon case.
Simpson stated that he was only peripherally involved with HRAGI and did not recall any interactions with the organization. Simpson acknowledged knowing and having lunch once with Lanny Wiles, a well-connected Republican consultant and lobbyist who may have been working for Prevezon or HRAGI.
Simpson was only vaguely aware of HRAGI’s lobbying efforts. He did recall Akhmetshin or Cymrot mentioning a meeting with Paul Behrends, a Congressional aide to U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). [Rohrabacher has been an outspoken defender of Russia and a loyal Trump ally, and Behrends, the main contact on Capitol Hill for Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, has an interesting history in Washington DC: in a matter of just a couple years, Behrends went from being a fierce hawk against Russia to being a cheerleader for them] [Politico]. There was also e-mail evidence of a meeting with U.S. Representative French Hill (R-AR). Simpson did not believe that HRAGI or Prevezon were connected with the Russian government.
Simpson did not personally know Emin Agalarov, Aras Agalarov, or Rob Goldstone, although he knew who they were. [Goldstone arranged and attended the Trump Tower meeting, allegedly prompted by the Agalarovs] Neither Simpson nor Fusion had ever paid or been paid by any of them, and Simpson did not believe that any of them were working with Prevezon.
Since the election, there have been attempts to hack into Fusion GPS’s communications system. Simpson’s attorney Levy, present with Simpson during his testimony, stated that Fusion has received death threats. When Simpson was asked a question about his sources, Levy said that “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work.”
Simpson was asked a number of questions pertaining to names of his clients, communications with his clients, and naming sources of information – topics which the Senate Judiciary Committee had apparently agreed in advance not to go into. At the advice of his attorney, Simpson declined to answer those questions.
What did Glenn Simpson tell the House Intelligence Committee about the Prevezon case that he did not already say in his Senate testimony?
Baker Hostetler is one of Fusion GPS’s oldest clients. Fusion has done 4-5 projects for them. Simpson describes them as a Republican-oriented law firm of “very serious, sober, reputable attorneys.”
Regarding the Prevezon case, Baker approached Fusion in late 2013 to determine whether it was provable that money from a specific fraud in Russia had gone into some specific real estate projects in New York. Baker attorney John Moscow led Simpson through the financial information of the case, and persuaded Simpson that the money trail between the Russian fraud and New York properties was not clear. Baker retained Fusion in early 2014.
The first thing that Fusion did was to investigate Prevezon. Natalia Veselnitskaya was introduced to Simpson in mid-2014 as a former Russian government lawyer who had retained Baker on behalf of Prevezon. She had told Baker Prevezon’s story about being blackmailed by Russian organized crime figure Baranovsky, who had been jailed for extortion. Baker passed Veselnitskaya’s story to Fusion. Fusion checked the story out, and it appeared to be true.
Fusion then wondered how allegations from a jailed criminal in Russia had gotten to the U.S. Department of Justice. Baker subpoenaed an ICE agent who informed them that they had gotten the information from William Browder.
In addition to Browder’s mansion in Aspen, Colorado, Fusion also uncovered that he had a house in New Jersey. In addition to trying to serve Browder with a subpoena in Colorado, Fusion tried to serve him another time, and then again in New York outside the Daily Show. That attempt at a subpoena was videotaped, and Browder ran down the street without taking the paper.
Simpson’s House testimony contained a few miscellaneous details elaborating on his previous Senate testimony:
Ed Baumgartner, who worked on both the Prevezon case and the Trump project, traveled to Russia with the lawyers as part of his work on the Prevezon case. Simpson did not go to Russia.
In researching Denis Katsyv for the Prevezon case, Simpson did not find Katsyv to “have a media profile of an oligarch” – no mafia connections, no meetings with Putin, no denial of visas to the U.S. However, Denis’s father, Pyotr Katsyv, is a Russia government official.
Browder’s shell companies based in Cyprus likely included Giggs Enterprises Limited, Zhoda Limited, and Peninsular Heights Limited.
The Russians regularly do fake news stories on Browder and have even done a documentary accusing him of murder.
At the Prevezon hearing on June 9, 2016, the day of the Trump Tower meeting, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey argued on behalf of Prevezon as their appellate lawyer.
Much of the House Intelligence Committee’s Prevezon-related questioning focused on three things: the period around the time of the Trump Tower meeting, specific information from Simpson’s Prevezon research, and the flow of that information.
According to one of Simpson’s House Intelligence Committee questioners, when Veselnitskaya was at the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, she presented information about William Browder and the Magnitsky Act. Simpson had read news accounts of that.
Regarding Simpson’s own activities on June 9, after attending the Prevezon hearing (where Veselnitskaya was present), Simpson met with Shandwick public relations “at a hotel somewhere” to explore having them do PR work for the Prevezon case.
The next time that Simpson saw Veselnitskaya was at the dinner in Washington DC organized byBaker attorney Mark Cymrot. During this second testimony, Simpson could not recall if the dinner was on June 10 or 11.
Committee questioners showed Simpson an October 27, 2017 New York Times article, “Talking Points Brought to Trump Tower Meeting Were Shared With Kremlin” [New York Times] as well as a memo from the office of Yuri Chaika, Russia’s Prosecutor General. According to the Times article, Veselnitskaya’s Trump Tower talking points largely matched the memo from Yuri Chaika – in some cases paragraph for paragraph.
[The e-mail to Trump Jr. that sparked the Trump Tower meeting had promised information on Clinton from the “Crown Prosecutor of Russia.” Journalists and others had initially interpreted this to be an exaggerated/inaccurate description of Veselnitskaya, but it was more likely referring to Chaika.]
[Veselnitskaya’s talking points (New York Times) focused on Browder and the Magnitsky Act, but also included allegations that two major Democratic donors – New York billionaires the Ziff brothers – had committed fraud and tax evasion by illegally investing through William Browder’s company and not paying taxes (amounting to millions of dollars) to Russia on the investment. Putin claimed that the U.S. government was ignoring these allegations against the Ziff Brothers because they were major political donors. Veselnitskaya asserted that the alleged tax evasion tainted any potential donations to Clinton from the Ziff brothers. This was her “dirt” on Clinton.]
[Chaika’s memo had been given to pro-Russia U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) during an American Congressional delegation to Moscow in April 2016. Veselnitskaya and Chaika were known to have communicated in the months before the June 9th Trump Tower meeting, and worked together to provide the info on Browder and the Ziff brothers to Rohrabacher. Veselnitskaya later got the same info to U.S. Representative French Hill (R-AR). Veselnitskaya then asked Aras Agalarov to help her set up the meeting at Trump Tower to present the information.]
Simpson’s research on Browder had also included information on the Ziff brothers. Baker Hostetler would have given that information to Veselnitskaya for the Prevezon case.
Simpson did not believe that Veselnitskaya was sharing that information with the Kremlin or acting on behalf of the Russian government. Simpson did not recall if she had ever told him that she knew Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, but she “may have alluded at times to giving information to the [Russian] government for purposes of tax law enforcement” to recover unpaid taxes.
Simpson acknowledged that, because Browder was antagonistic toward both Prevezon and Putin, Putin would likely have been more supportive of Prevezon’s side in the Prevezon case.
As an explanation for how Fusion’s research ended up being used in the Trump Tower meeting, Simpson said:
“In retrospect, I think what might have happened was that – so when the case started it wasn’t about William Browder. It was about a technical argument about whether you could prove that money from something in Russia went into this real estate development. And so it didn’t have a political dimension to me particularly, it was a technical argument. And that is how the case was introduced to me, and the fight was going to be over what the bank records showed.
“So it was a reasonably interesting case, but not very potentially controversial. But as we went into discovery, you know, the discovery trail led to Vladimir Putin’s biggest critic [William Browder].” [This ultimately resulted in Simpson doing work that could be repurposed to oppose the Magnitsky Act.]
“My view is that when we started producing actual information in court that was embarrassing to [Browder], and tended to raise questions about [Browder’s] activities in Russia, that [Veselnitskaya and ultimately Chaika and Putin] opportunistically began to exploit that.
“And that would fit with my view of Ms. Veselnitskaya as well, which is that she viewed the success that we had in finding certain kinds of information as a ticket to political advancement in Moscow. There is only one way up in Russia, and that is to do something that impresses Vladimir Putin.” Developing a relationship with a potential President of the United States would also be a way to impress Putin.”
Simpson was proud of the information that he had gathered in the Prevezon case, but disagreed with the pro-Putin slant that Veselnitskaya added to it in her Trump Tower talking points.
Asked if it bothered him that the information from his research had been used in what he himself at one point in his testimony had described as a Russian Government-directed operation, Simpson stated:
“It all happens to be accurate. And so, you know, if someone used this research that they, you know, commissioned through a law firm for a legitimate legal purpose, took it and repurposed it in some other way, I can’t say as I am upset by that. I must say in my business, right, I am in the information business, so when people commission research from you, it becomes their property when you are finished with the research, when you give it to them. So if they decide to go and use it for something else, I mean, that’s just beyond my control. So I will add that, you know, as someone who is not a fan of Vladimir Putin, I don’t take any great – I certainly am not happy to do anything that anyone would think was helping Vladimir Putin. And so to the extent that this has subjected me to an unfair accusation that I was engaged in some kind of Kremlin operation, I find that very regrettable.”
Simpson’s testimony sharply contradicts some of Browder testimony, and paints Browder as a more complex figure than Browder’s portrayal of himself as a wrongly persecuted anti-corruption crusader. Browder’s various shell companies in tax havens around the world muddy the waters of Browder’s story considerably. Was Browder’s $230 million in taxes in fact paid to the Russian government, as Browder claims, and then stolen by the government and laundered overseas for the benefit of Putin and others (creating a pretext for turning Browder into a fugitive)? Or was Browder truly guilty of tax evasion, using his shell companies to hide the money, as the Russian government accused him of? Or is the answer something in between? Regardless, one comes away from Simpson’s testimony with a more multi-dimensional understanding of Browder.
Browder’s evasiveness and unwillingness to testify under oath are somewhat consistent with Browder’s story. If Browder truly is considered by Putin to be a major enemy – a likelihood that seems to be agreed upon by all – it is reasonable for him to be fearful when seeing two strange men approaching him in a Colorado parking lot or on the streets of Manhattan, and it is reasonable for him to be cagey about putting himself in a well publicized location like a courtroom, where he could potentially be assassinated upon entering or leaving. According to accounts of Browder’s Senate testimony, he showed up flanked by two large bodyguards. [Esquire]
Yet Browder has also willingly spoken at publicized events, like his appearance at the Aspen Institute, so his wariness and overabundance of caution seems to be selective.
The major takeaway from Simpson’s testimony about his Prevezon work, however, is that information gathered by Fusion GPS ended up being used by a likely Russian operative, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and ultimately by Russian Special Prosecutor Chaika, to further the interests of the Russian government. That was how the information was used in the Trump Tower meeting, and how it was used in lobbying efforts with U.S. Congresspersons Rep. Dana Rohrobacher (R-CA) and Rep. French Hill (R-AR).
The most important question is whether or not Simpson was aware that Fusion’s research was going to be used in that way and whether or not Simpson provided the research information to someone that he knew was a likely Russian government operative.
The explanation that Simpson gives for how things evolved seems very plausible, and I personally believe it: the case started out as a normal case of technical research, Browder came up in that technical research, and behaved in an actively antagonistic yet evasive way that raised questions. Browder’s actions prompted further investigation into him and his business ties, which produced incriminating information. Veselnitskaya, recognizing the value of that information to her career in Russia, opportunistically took it to the Russian government, who began making use of her and the information to undermine the Magnitsky Act – a major personal goal of Putin’s. In such a situation, where a reputable, conservative law firm with a known track record of prudence had introduced Simpson to Veselnitskaya merely as a lawyer, it was reasonable for Simpson to take that initial understanding of who she was at face value, and to not anticipate the possibility that during the course of the case, she would become an operative for the Russian government.
In general, Simpson appeared to be extremely forthcoming in both of his lengthy, voluntary testimonies, often answering questions with far more thoroughness than required, and at times even including names and dates without prompting.
However, Simpson’s haziness about the events around June 9, 2016 seems inconsistent with his detailed recollection of the events and characters of the Prevezon case (and of Trump’s background). Most notably, regarding his own actions, Simpson seemed unclear about the exact reason that he had gone home on June 9. In the Senate testimony, he said “My son’s junior prom was that night or senior prom and I was under some pressure to go home and be a dad” (p. 260-261). In the House testimony, he said “it was my son’s high school graduation. It was an event for my son’s high school graduation” (p. 121). He also said in the Senate testimony that the Washington DC dinner that he and Veselnitskaya attended was on June 10, and in the House testimony he said that it was on June 10 or 11.
This foggy recollection could be easily attributed to Simpson being more engaged in his research work than in his personal life. Yet given that his actions during this particular time period are crucial to understanding his involvement with Veselnitskaya and her Trump Tower meeting, one would think that he would have looked through his own calendar book and other records between the Senate and House testimonies so that he could give a clearer answer.
Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that in over 16 hours of testimony – 10 without having sworn an oath, then six under oath – with at times aggressive questioning, these were the only inconsistencies between his first and second testimony, and they are not even inconsistencies, but merely an inability to remember exact details of his own life from two specific days that had been over a year in the past by the time he was first asked to account for them.
– rob rünt
Read more of this special series:
The Trump-Russia Web