WASHINGTON — American lawmakers heard behind closed doors a gripping tale of international espionage, murder, organized crime, Russian blackmail and presidential politics by a political-research firm paid to dig up dirt on Donald Trump.
They heard allegations of someone being killed in connection with the 2016 campaign research effort against Trump; that muckrakers found financial irregularities in Trump properties after researching potential ties to criminals; and that a retired British spy working on the case felt it was his public duty to alert the FBI.
This private interrogation of the head of the Fusion GPS research firm was released in a transcript Tuesday, dumped onto the internet by a high-ranking Democrat who expressed frustration over how that material is being treated by her partisan adversaries.
Dianne Feinstein said she chose to release the transcript of the five-month-old hearing after sustained smears against the firm and the ex-British spy it employed. She accused Republicans of trying to protect the president and quash the Russia probe.
She noted that the person being questioned last summer had asked for the transcript to be released: Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson penned an op-ed in The New York Times several days ago, accusing Republicans of targeting him and ignoring important testimony.
“It is time to stop chasing rabbits,” Simpson wrote.
“The public still has much to learn about a man with the most troubling business past of any United States president… The American people (should) learn the truth about our work and most important, what happened to our democracy.”
He fumed that the president’s party showed little interest in his suggestion that it examine bank records from Deutsche Bank and others funding Trump’s businesses, while subpoenaing Fusion GPS’s records.
He noted that he’d told Congress about dubious Russian involvement in Trump construction projects in Toronto, Florida, Manhattan, and Panama, in arrangements that he said often raised questions about money-laundering.
The testimony is now out.
In it, Simpson tells congressional investigators that British ex-spy Christopher Steele produced 16 memos during the election, as he helped the firm research the presidential candidate’s Russia ties.
Russia was not the initial investigative focus; Steele was hired later, he says.
The firm was initially hired by an anti-Trump conservative during the primaries to seek financial dirt in 2015, and it was later hired by Democrats during the general election in 2016. Early in its research, Simpson said, it found publicly reported references to Trump’s real-estate ties with Russian-born Felix Sater, who was once convicted for stabbing a man and later again in an organized-crime scheme.
He said he found it bizarre that Trump kept claiming he didn’t know Sater well. Trump even once walked out of a BBC interview after being pressed on his relationship with a man who once reportedly worked in an office on his floor at Trump Tower.
Simpson said: “That was not true. (Trump) knew him well.”
He said he began looking into Trump projects in different countries, including Latin America. The transcript released Tuesday makes no reference to Toronto. In the spring of 2016, he said he hired Steele to examine the Moscow ties.
He said Steele quickly grew alarmed. Simpson said his spy-for-hire worried that the president-to-be risked being blackmailed by familiar Russian espionage tactics. The testimony refers to an alleged incident in a Moscow hotel room that has never been proven and that Trump has denied.
The team had other concerns about a potential conspiracy to violate campaign laws, Simpson said. Meanwhile, rumours were spreading around Washington that someone had been hacking into the computers of Democrats.
“Chris said he was very concerned about whether this represented a national security threat and said he thought we were obligated to tell someone in government,” Simpson said.
“He thought from his perspective there was an issue — a security issue — about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed.”
They went to the FBI — Simpson described it as a citizen’s duty: “To me, this was like, you’re driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911.”
He said they grew more concerned over the summer, following several developments from their research and from unusually pro-Russia, anti-NATO statements from the Republican nominee.
Steele declared he would set up another meeting with an FBI contact in another country: “He said he had to go to Rome, I said OK. He went,” Simpson said. He said Steele was told the FBI had other information corroborating his.
Yet authorities said little throughout the campaign, making limited public statements. In fact, sources even told The New York Times the FBI had concluded there was no Russian collusion.
He said Steele worried the FBI was being manipulated by Trump allies and severed his communications with it. That’s when he and Steele tried to alert the media. Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, said they held a briefing session for a small group of investigative journalists.
Little of it trickled out during the campaign.
But weeks later, with Trump set to be sworn in, memos from Steele packed with salacious details wound up being published online by certain news organizations.
Simpson was pressed during the August hearing for information about Steele’s sources. He refused to discuss his sources, or clients. At that point during the hearing, his lawyer Joshua Levy interjected.
“Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier,” Levy said. ”No harm should come to anybody related to this honest work.”