On multiple occasions in 2016, and perhaps stretching back into the previous year, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign fielded solicitations from Russian spies and cutouts offering up stolen Democratic Party emails and other assistance in the election.
At no point, so far as we know, did anyone working on the campaign report this pattern of behavior to the FBI. After Trump secured the Republican Party nomination, the FBI warned him and his advisers that Russians would try to penetrate their campaign, and asked them to alert law enforcement officials if and when they noticed anything suspicious. They said nothing. Since winning the election, Trump has gone to great lengths to protect Russia from the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia subverted the election to help Trump and tried to shut down all efforts to determine his level of complicity in that subversion.
Christopher Steele, by contrast, didn’t hesitate for a second to alert the FBI when, while working for the political intelligence firm Fusion GPS, he unearthed information that convinced him Trump was compromised, susceptible to Russian government blackmail, and conspiring with Russian spies to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
For his trouble, Republicans have tried to run down the former head of the MI6 Russia desk as a partisan operative and a criminal, without whom the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation would never have taken hold. Despite the fact that he has never testified before Congress, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently accused him of making false statements (presumably, they allege, to law enforcement officials) and referred him to the FBI for investigation.
Glenn Simpson, the Fusion GPS founder who contracted Steele, has testified at extraordinary length, behind closed doors, to Grassley’s judiciary committee. If anyone involved in the production of the so-called “Steele Dossier” had legal exposure from members of Congress for making false statements, it would be Simpson. But Grassley and Graham haven’t referred Simpson to the FBI for anything. To the contrary, they used their powers to suppress Simpson’s testimony because they knew it was credible and damning.
The transcript of that testimony, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) published online Tuesday, doesn’t radically alter what honest people already knew about the state of the Russia scandal, but it is awful for Republicans, because it paints a tidy contrast between those working in good-faith, though at times sloppily, to uncover the truth; and those, from Trump on down, who have been engaged in a coverup.
The transcript reads in chapters, which alternate hour by hour from questioning by Grassley’s counsel to questions by Feinstein’s and back. It is somewhat tedious, but extremely revealing, to reorder the transcript after first reading, and consume the Grassley half and the Feinstein half as separate, continuous wholes.
From the latter, we learn that by the time Steele reached out to law enforcement, independent sources had already tipped the FBI off to the cooperative relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia. We learn that, using decades of combined experience detecting disinformation, Simpson and Steele scrubbed the raw intel Steele collected, and were convinced that none of it was intentionally planted by Russian counterintelligence. We learn that Steele, with Simpson’s blessing, turned over his information to the FBI as a departure from their political intelligence gathering, expecting no political dividend because, Simpson said, “from my decades of dealing with U.S. elections [as a newspaper reporter] that you can’t expect the government or the FBI to be of any use in a campaign because the DOJ has rules against law enforcement getting involved in investigations in the middle of a campaign.”
We also learn that in shopping the information around (first to the FBI, and later the the press), Simpson and Steele did not cherry pick details, the way opposition researchers do, to depict Trump in maximally unflattering light.
This latter point is crucial, because there has been speculation, based on the way the memos are numbered and on reporting about Steele’s involvement in the operation, that the Steele dossier Buzzfeed published a year ago wasn’t Steele’s complete work product—that it may have been selectively edited for partisan reasons, or to make it seem more incriminating.
We learn, in other words, that Simpson and Steele were doing their civic-minded best to alert authorities, and failing that, the public, to what they believed to be the alarming and dangerous truth.
As humans they were not impervious to bias. Steele believed his sources, who were themselves human, and Simpson by his own admission came to believe Trump was a national security threat, unfit to be president. They also appear to have undermined their own efforts to blow the whistle. Simpson testified that Steele temporarily severed his relationship with the FBI after the New York Times published an infamous story on October 31, 2016 reporting that the bureau had investigated Trump and found no “clear link” to Russia. Between this obvious misinformation, and FBI Director James Comey’s late October intrusion into the campaign, Steele and Simpson, wondered whether or not Trump and his sympathizers had compromised the FBI.
There was likely some merit to their suspicions, but it now seems just as likely that the FBI waved the New York Times off the story because Simpson and Steele were drawing too much reportorial heat in their direction. Late in the campaign, they began briefing reporters from multiple outlets on the contents of the memos. Perhaps for that reason, after Comey wrote his fateful letter to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Simpson says, “we began getting questions from the press about, you know, whether they were also investigating Trump and, you know, we encouraged them to ask the FBI that question.” At about the same time, Democrats in Congress revealed they too were aware of Steele’s work. Faced with this partisan pressure, and specific inquiries from multiple reporters about the very leads Steele had given its agents to pursue, the FBI would have had decent reasons for trying to throw reporters off the scent.
In that telling, Trump may well have won the election thanks to a comedy of errors starring multiple actors (in law enforcement, in the media, in the Democratic Party, at Fusion GPS) each doing the best they could, with incomplete and unverified information, to find and reveal the truth.
That’s what we learned from the half of Simpson’s testimony driven by Feinstein’s staff.
The other half is a monument to Republican complicity in Trump’s jaw-dropping misconduct.
By my count, over the course of about five hours, Chuck Grassley’s lawyers asked Simpson literally zero questions designed to increase their own understanding of Russian efforts to disrupt the election. They likewise asked no questions aimed at establishing Simpsons’ level of confidence in the information in the dossier, or in documentary evidence he compiled of Trump’s involvement in money laundering and his ties to organized crime.
They spent their hours instead trying without much success to impeach Simpson’s credibility and paint him as a partisan. They were particularly interested in skewing the composition of Simpsons’ client base to make it seem tilted to Democrats (it isn’t), and in getting Simpson to testify that he had a financial interest in triggering an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign (he didn’t). Confronted with the allegation that the Trump campaign was complicit in a criminal plot to sabotage the Clinton campaign, Grassley’s representatives wanted to know why Simpson had the nerve to try to alert the public, through the media.
Grassley doesn’t work for Trump and neither do his aides, but their conduct blends seamlessly into the obstructive behavior Trump and his advisers exhibited during the campaign and after, and thus represents a total abdication of their Constitutional roles. Rather than alert the FBI, as requested, about Russian meddling, the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian hackers, and used their stolen materials to maximum benefit. When the FBI acknowledged the existence of its investigation of the Trump campaign, Trump called it a witch hunt and tried to quash it, along with parallel investigations limping along on Capitol Hill. Grassley’s efforts began where Trump’s left off. The special counsel’s investigation of the Trump campaign continues, so Grassley has devoted himself to proving that it is the fruit of poisonous partisanship. First, they hoped Simpson would melt and confess to being a high-rent version of Roger Stone. When they failed to discredit Simpson, Steele, and the dossier, or to establish that the dossier triggered the FBI’s investigation, Grassley tried to bury the testimony, and then to discredit the dossier by proxy with a baseless accusation that Steele is a criminal.
Trump’s lickspittle propagandists remain as determined as ever to manufacture a scandal out of the nexus between law enforcement and the private investigators who tipped them off, based solely on the identities of the investigators’ clients. Before Feinstein posted Simpson’s testimony, they alleged, without evidence, that Steele’s dossier was the progenitor of the FBI’s Trump investigation. Amid the ruins of that theory, they have unblinkingly adopted the incompatible view that the real outrage is that the FBI tipped its hand to a witness that an investigation was already underway.
If true, that means FBI was blabbing to Steele–(who was on the payroll of the Clinton campaign)–about separate intelligence it had on Trump–including another informant’s name. And that Steele then told a political operative (Simpson). Hope that’s not how it really works. https://t.co/HEpFRiidIn
— Kimberley Strassel (@KimStrassel) January 9, 2018
It’s often said that the coverup is worse than the crime. To the extent that this coverup includes character assassination and the attempted prosecution of whistleblowers, it’s pretty ugly. But in another sense it is simply lying and misdirection, undertaken by partisans, to smear those doing the best they can to find the truth. Viewed in that light, the crime in this case is far, far worse than the coverup. Simpson’s testimony is a challenging read, but it is also an acid test for determining who is engaged in the former project, and who is engaged in the latter. That makes it a critical tool, because our power as reporters and citizens to hold the guilty accountable now turns on our ability and willingness to sort good faith from bad.