Fusion GPS' Glenn Simpson on the Steele Dossier, the FBI's Trump Investigation and Life as a Fox News Pinata

As Donald Trump's unlikely campaign for president kicked off in 2015, the owners of a small private investigative firm based in Washington D.C., which specializes in public record research for private clients, decided to poke around. They figured they might be able to interest a Republican client—which they did in the form of The Free Beacon, a conservative news organization funded by New York Republican donor Peter Singer. The former journalists who ran Fusion GPS soon found themselves hip-deep in Trump's bankruptcies and the thousands of lawsuits in which he (or his company) was either a plaintiff or defendant. They didn't know they were heading down a trail that would lead to Russian oligarchs, Vladimir Putin, election-interfering cyber-warfare—and would make them some of President Trump's most reviled enemies.

In their new book, "Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump," Fusion co-founders and former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch describe how their original investigation into Trump led to Moscow and back out with, among other things, a notorious account alleging the existence of a Russian blackmail "kompromat" video involving Trump. They also write that the Steele dossier "didn't purport to be flawless" and that raw intelligence of the sort in the dossier is considered in the intelligence community to be a success if it is 70 percent accurate.

Simpson and Fritsch, former investigative journalists, have since been called to testify before Congress, fended off Russian cyber-attacks, been the target of Trump's rage Tweets, nightly abuse on Fox News and the consequent harassment from Trump's more avid fans. They are still working for private clients in the corporate world, but have put Fusion's expertise into a Silicon-Valley-funded philanthropy called The Democracy Integrity Project, tracking Russian interference in elections in the U.S. and other major democracies.

Simpson talked to Newsweek's Nina Burleigh about his view of the FBI's involvement in the initial stages of those investigations, the Mueller Report, the media, the fate of MI6 agent Christopher Steele and his view of the role of the Steele dossier in American politics. He also addressed via email the Department of Justice Inspector General's determination that the FBI was warranted in initiating its Trump-Russia investigations, while finding the Steele dossier was flawed. Edited excerpts:

Newsweek: Tell us how the Steele Dossier developed out of work you were doing for a Republican client, and how it feels to have that fact obscured in the coverage.

Simpson: Well, it was the information that we developed while working for our Republican client that led us to a conclusion that if we were going to continue the investigation, we would need to have higher-level intelligence about what was going on between Trump and Russia and that the only way to do that was to hire an intelligence professional. It's frustrating to see the fact that much of our work was, on behalf of a Republican client, obscured and glossed over because we know it's intentional on the part of the Republicans and Trump's defenders. They really don't want people to understand that, because it blows apart their conspiracy theory, which is that this was a Democratic plot to take down Donald Trump. Obviously, we did have a Democratic client in the summer and fall of 2016, but the foundation of our research really was performed for a Republican client. They don't want people to know that, and they don't want people to understand that. You know, we are not partisan people. All of the partners and principals of Fusion GPS are long-time former journalists who are professionals at not taking sides. We have friends in the Republican party, we have friends in the Democratic party.

What more damaging information do you think could come out about the Trump circle?

I think, Trump's involvement in all sorts of criminal activity from fraud to tax evasion to, you know, corruption. I think that in regards to the current Ukraine matter, we still don't know what role Putin played in all this. We know he played a role because Trump had a conversation with him in the middle of all this, and then they put out a phony story about how they were talking about Siberian wildfires. So you know, there's quite a bit left to come out. I also think, just using history as a guide, that there are potentially a whole series of other areas that are completely in the dark right now. Campaign finance, dealings with other governments, you know, whether he's abused the law enforcement agencies to chase after his critics. All of these things potentially are still to come.

Donald Trump, Russia, impeachment, money, Joe Lockhart
This file photo shows President Donald Trump at a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on December 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Have you come to a conclusion on whether Trump was oblivious or not—and how much of these schemes are Trump and how much are they the work of the lawyers and accountants?

We can say with confidence that there was a culture within the Trump organization of business practices that bordered on fraudulent if not outright fraudulent, and that clearly came from Trump at the top. Looking at the litigation against him and the patterns that repeat themselves over and over again, both he and his children regularly misstated the financial condition of their properties, the level of sales of their properties. I think that is directly attributable to Donald Trump.

You quote former CIA Director John O. Brennan, saying, "Frequently people who go on a treasonous path do not know that they are on a treasonous path until it is too late..."

I think that it's important to say clearly that we don't think Donald Trump is a Manchurian candidate in the sense that he was somehow brainwashed and is now under the control of a foreign power and essentially acting on the orders of a foreign power, and is sort of a fully-controlled agent of a foreign power. He's more of a willing participant in, you know, a sort of mutually beneficial pursuit of goals with Russia. I think that others in the organization were probably less aware and less mindful of the road that they were going down. I think that when it comes to accepting foreign money of unknown origin or suspicious origin into Trump properties, both Trump and his children were willfully blind to the true origin of the money that was coming to them. And in fact, probably had ample suspicions that a lot of this money was of suspicious origin.

To your knowledge, did anything bad ever happen to any of the Steele sources?

To our knowledge, no one who contributed information to the Steele project has been physically harmed. All sorts of bad things have happened to people who contributed in one way or another to this work. Some of them have had to move, and others, you know, have lived in fear of reprisal. But to our knowledge, no one has been harmed physically.

Regarding the FBI: According to your book, it was Steele's idea, not yours, to go to the FBI before the election. Why did you think that it wasn't urgent to do that at that time?

Well, it was not so much that I disagreed as I didn't feel like I had the expertise and the contacts to execute that. I covered the war on terrorism and have done national security reporting for many years, and so I'm a strong believer in providing information about national security threats to the authorities. But I'm also not an intelligence expert and I'm not a national security expert - I'm an ex-journalist. So when Chris raised the idea of going to the FBI in June of 2016, my initial reaction was that I didn't really feel like that was my place. The conclusion we came to at Fusion, was that if Chris thought that that was incumbent upon us to do for reasons of citizenship and loyalty to our respective governments and countries, then he should do it, and that we wouldn't stand in his way. But we didn't tell our client that we were doing that because we didn't really think of it as something that was part of our work for our client, or that was designed to advance the interest of our client. It was done, you know, as an act of citizenship. And that's where the title of the book "Crime in Progress," really comes from."If you see a crime in progress, you call the cops." It was as simple as that.

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You're pretty critical of the FBI in the book, including someone telling the New York Times, "No clear Trump link to Russia."

We're critical really of the FBI leadership, particularly James Comey, more than of the organization itself, which we think overall is a highly professional, highly effective law enforcement organization and, you know, deserves the reputation it has for being one. We do feel like the FBI leadership deliberately misled the New York Times about the status of its investigation into Trump - and that was very concerning to us. [It] caused us to worry, to fear that there was some sort of influence within the FBI, that Trump people had some sort of influence within the FBI...it wasn't so much that we believed that was true as that we worried it might be true.

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Former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey arrives at the Rayburn House Office Building before testifying to the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees on Capitol Hill December 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. When asked about William Barr's claims of "spying," Comey on Thursday said he has "no idea" what the attorney general is talking about. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

You're also critical of the media. What did journalists get wrong?

During most of the campaign, we made no attempts to get Chris's findings into the press. When we initially briefed some investigative journalists on Chris's findings in the fall of 2016, there was no expectation that they would write pre-election stories about it. We thought that it was important that the press be made aware of what was going on, because it was going to become something that the country had to deal with after the election. After the bizarre events of late October when Comey reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton and then someone misled the FBI about the parallel investigation into Trump, we did decide that it would be appropriate to go to the press and tell them about the FBI investigation into Trump. That was in the last week of the campaign. Our effort to bring that to light failed.

You did bring it to David Corn of Mother Jones. Did you ever believe it wouldn't become public?

Yup, that's true. I acknowledge that. Although, I again think the depiction of this period in a lot of the news coverage, and particularly a lot of the statements by the Republicans and Trump's defenders, you know, isn't accurate, which is to say that this was somehow in wide circulation and everyone in town knew about it. That's just not true. In the media world that you and I grew up in, big newspapers were very careful and responsible about publishing unconfirmed raw information like this. The advent of the internet has obviously changed things, and perhaps we didn't take that into account enough. It wasn't so much that we were intent on keeping the existence of Chris's information a secret, as that we were intent on keeping the actual raw material secret. And you know, to this day I think, you know, that it was a mistake for Buzzfeed to publish that stuff without some redaction, or at least checking with us to ask us whether it might put people in danger. You know, it's resulted in enormous amounts of litigation. It did put people in danger. So even though it was defensible as a newsworthy document to publish it, the way they went about it we thought was reckless.

What do you think of the IG report?

The report confirms what reasonable people have known all along: Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about a "Deep State" out to get him are utterly false, the criminal investigation of the Trump campaign was based on legitimate concerns, and the original trigger for the investigation was an aide to Trump's own campaign, not the Steele memoranda.

Were you aware of Steele's friendship with Ivanka Trump and if not, were you surprised?

We were aware that Steele was friendly with Ivanka Trump. This supports what we've always said: there was no pre-existing animus toward Trump by Steele or Fusion.

The Inspector General found flaws in the Steele dossier. Do you maintain faith that it is mostly accurate?

It is important not to conflate "uncorroborated" with "disproven." The IG report debunks very little of what's in the Steele memoranda. In fact, what's remarkable about the Steele reporting after three years is how much of it stands up and how little of it has been disproven.

Trump lost his appeal to keep Deutsche Bank and Capital One records secret. And of course, the tax records are in litigation too. How do you think this is all going to play out?

I think that the Supreme Court is going to find itself to be largely bound by its own precedents here. US v. Nixon is very clear law on congress's ability to obtain the bank records and other personal financial information of presidents and other people is very clear. We ourselves were subjected to a congressional subpoena of our bank records, and that case went through the district court here in Washington, and the outcome was unequivocal. Congress has the right to that information. So I think, absent some extraordinary act by the Supreme Court to repudiate its own precedents, Donald Trump is going to lose this fight.

What purpose, looking back on it now, did the Steele dossier serve?

The dossier, the disclosure of the dossier by Buzzfeed, probably interrupted a nascent rapprochement between Russia and the United States that was not in the interest of the United States. It seems clear to us that Trump and Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, were pursuing a plan to make a deal with Putin that would relax or drop US sanctions against Russia and essentially tolerate or sanction his actions against Ukraine, his invasion of his neighbor. So I think that is one of the clearest impacts of all of this. I think the reporting that we did obviously supported the FBI's investigation in general, and I think helped move it forward, even if it didn't instigate it. And so you know, we contributed to a better understanding of the covert relationship between the Trump campaign and the government of Russia. So I'd say those are the two big impacts on our country and our politics, more generally.

Moving on to Robert Mueller. I'm interested in your take on how he handled the report. He found 140 contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but no collusion. Why do you think he did not follow the money?

We felt vindicated by the findings of the Mueller report, which laid out a surreptitious relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and basically showed that the president had indeed been compromised by his dealings with the Kremlin in various ways, including by conducting a secret business deal in Russia during the campaign. A lot of the people who first surfaced in Chris Steele's memos turned out to be central figures in this covert relationship. We were surprised and disappointed that there was no effort to address the question of all of the money from the former Soviet Union that has flowed through the Trump organization. We understand that might not have been within the specific mandate of the Mueller investigation, but it seems like a glaring hole in the whole story. There's reason to think that (angle) is being investigated under a different umbrella, that there's a counter-intelligence investigation that is ongoing.

How is Steele doing and where is he?

Chris is doing fine. You know, he lives in the London suburbs and goes to work every day and is running a successful consulting firm and yeah, basically living his life. He is looking forward to being able to begin to speak publicly about some of these matters like us. He's had various confidences and obligations to keep. He's also in litigation, and in order to preserve his litigation position, he's been unable to make public statements.

As for you, how did it feel being public enemy number one on Fox, how did that affect you and your family?

It's no fun to be the subject of a negative propaganda campaign. Obviously, you know, it was all made up. Having said that, we don't like to whine about it either. We feel like others have been put through much worse. So as far as these things go, we feel like we weren't the ones that got the worst of it. Having said that, I think for all of us who were directly targeted by the right wing propaganda machine, it was at least as hard and maybe harder on our loved ones to sit by and watch us be dragged through the mud, and be able to do nothing about it. Very frustrating.

You still have private clients, right?

Right.