This post was originally published on Real Clear Politics.
Fusion GPS founder’s testimony shows how we got the collusion narrative . . . and why it won’t go away.
Someone with fourth-hand knowledge that the bank was robbed claims that Smith conspired — er, I mean, colluded — with the local organized-crime family to rob the bank. Jones figures it must be true because he heard it from a trusted friend, a former cop — and you know those guys have great sources. Yet, Jones has no concrete evidence that it’s true. In fact, he can’t even prove that the mobsters had anything to do with the robbery, much less that Smith did.
But Jones is an industrious investigative journalist. Long before the bank was robbed, he conducted months of in-depth research and came to a single, unalterable, unassailable conclusion: Smith is a really crappy guy. He is a grade-A louche with mafia business partners and a decades-long record of financial shenanigans that walk the razor’s edge of actionable fraud. Born into wealth, he puts on the airs of the self-made man. When he’s in town, hide the women away. If he says he’ll pay you for a job, get it in writing . . . and make sure he still needs you when it’s time to pay up. Better have a good lawyer on retainer, too, just in case. Smith’s books are undoubtedly cooked, but they’re better hidden than Jimmy Hoffa — and yeah, you can bet he knows something about that, too.
Here’s what totally infuriates Jones, though: Smith seems to skate from debacle to debacle not only unscathed but ever more audacious.If you knew what Jones knows, rather than what the public thinks it knows, you wouldn’t trust Smith to run a 7-Eleven — yet, Smith sees himself as White House material!
Do you feel the frustration, the indignation that Jones feels in our hypothetical? If you do, then you know what it’s like to be Glenn Simpson.
The former Wall Street Journal reporter is a superb investigative journalist. More notoriously these days, he is the founder of Fusion GPS. It was he, in cahoots with his friend and collaborator, former British spy Christopher Steele, who orchestrated the compilation and dissemination of the so-called Steele dossier — the fons et origo of the Trump–Russia collusion narrative. We now know the dossier was covertly commissioned by the Clinton campaign, which dealt with Fusion through a layer of lawyers.
Yet, we were not aware of that nearly five months ago. That was when Simpson gave nine hours of articulate but dodgy testimony to Senate Judiciary Committee investigators. The 312-page transcript of the session was released this week by the committee’s senior Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.). Significantly, Simpson’s dodges included for whom and with whom he was working.
We’ll get to that. It is of greater moment to observe that Simpson’s testimony is the most enlightening information we have seen in over a year of collusion craze. To cut to the chase: Simpson has explained, unwittingly I think, both why there is a collusion narrative and why President Trump, who could blow up the narrative by declassifying intelligence records, has refrained from ordering his subordinates to cooperate with Congress’s probes.
See, Simpson’s got nothing. Even if we had not learned that the dossier is a partisan opposition-research screed, the Trump–Russia narrative it spouts is a house of cards. But here’s the thing: Good investigative journalists who dabble in partisan politics can be great at making nothing look like something.
I know this from my former life. All trial lawyers must be versed in this dark art — hopefully more to guard against than practice it. It is a particular danger with prosecutors. That is why the law builds in due-process safeguards like reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence, and the right to counsel. The ability to make nothing look like something sinister is why it is famously observed that a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich in the grand jury, where these safeguards do not apply.
You know where else those safeguards have no application? In the black hole we call “counterintelligence investigations” — such as Trump–Russia. And in investigative journalism.
How do you make someone look guilty of something he hasn’t done? You erect a formidable circumstantial case around the big hole in the middle — the hole that, in a normal case, would be filled by evidence that the suspect actually committed the crime. You don’t so much cover the hole as create distractions from it.
The biggest distraction is bad character: You must establish that your suspect is a five-alarm rogue. This is the fun part, the part you can feel righteous about. By the time you’re done, people will want to believe the scoundrel has done whatever he’s charged with. Indeed, if you’re the maestro, you’ve probably even convinced yourself that this sort of morality play is, shall we say, a well-meaning “insurance policy” against the ruinous harm the accused would surely do unless we convicted him of . . . something.
The rest is smoke and mirrors: Unable to demonstrate the actual commission of the offense, you compensate by showing, in dizzying detail, that all the conditions are in place for the crime to have happened just the way you claim it did. This doesn’t actually prove that that our suspect did anything wrong, just that he could have — or as you will call it: Corroboration!
To complete the web of suspicion, we sprinkle in the expert investigator. He has sources. We can’t say who they are, of course — that would be a security breach. But look, this guy is a pro. Not only are his snitches telling him our suspect is guilty; it seems that the sources’ stories get better every time a new detail about our suspect leaks out in the press.
Funny how that happens.
Glenn Simpson made a number of mistakes, but the main one is a habit of smart people: He ignored the wisdom he urged on others. Never “predetermine the result that you’re looking for,” he told the committee. Follow the trail wherever it leads. Check your biases. In the investigations business, he opined, one should resist hiring ideological people. They come at the puzzle with their minds made up about what the completed picture must look like. They force the mismatched pieces together and fill in the blanks with their prejudices rather than remembering that there are no substitutes for fact.
Simpson decided Trump was a terrible, compromised guy. That made it easy to decide the Russians had compromised him.
While Simpson poses as the gold standard of objectivity, his actions tell the story of a fellow powerfully swayed by whoever happens to be paying him. He is outraged by debauched character, but it is selective outrage.
In his testimony, he made it his mission to abominate William Browder (of Magnitsky Act fame). Browder, you see, was the prime mover behind the case against Simpson’s client, Prevezon Holdings, a business he helped defend from a Justice Department forfeiture action. That civil lawsuit was relevant to the committee hearing because Prevezon has deep Kremlin connections. Not the least of these is the shady Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was meeting with Simpson throughout the same June 2016 trip to America during which she met with top Trump-campaign officials (Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort). Veselnitskaya even shared some of Simpson’s Browder research with Team Trump — according to her convoluted theory, the information might damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign by dirtying up some Clinton donors.
In Simpson’s just-the-facts-ma’am telling, Browder is a charlatan. But what about Prevezon and the Katsyv family — i.e., the Putin cronies behind Prevezon? Gee, all Simpson could say was he met the client through the highly respected law firm of BakerHostetler. Suddenly passive, he figured law firms are supposed to vet their clients, so they must be legit, right?
And what about Veselnitskaya? Well, she seemed to Simpson like a smart, ambitious lawyer. Wait, what about her Putin-regime ties? Our meticulous investigative journalist has somehow resisted any urge to dig into that. Turns out that, on Prevezon’s behalf, Veselnitskaya was paying BakerHostetler, which was paying Simpson and Fusion GPS. But wait, Glenn, you had dinner with her right before and right after her Trump Tower confab. Surely she must have said something? Funny thing about that: When Simpson wants to tell you about things Russian, he is encyclopedic, right down to the roster of “the Solntsevo Brotherhood,” Moscow’s most feared mafia clan. But ask him about Natalia Veselnitskaya and, well, he’s sorry he can’t help you — see, she’s not fluent in English and, shucks, he doesn’t speak Russian, so who knows what she was jabbering about?
Simpson’s Trump research project had two phases. In the first, during the Republican primaries when he was being paid by conservative-leaning clients, Simpson did the kind of research he excels at: scrubbing public records, piecing together the financial paper trail of Trump’s global business enterprises. By early 2016, he’d made up his mind: Donald Trump was a dangerously creepy fraud who should not get anywhere near the presidency.
It is not a conclusion he came to lightly. Simpson determined that Trump was closely associated with a Russian organized crime figure, Felix Sater — a business partner whom Trump had falsely claimed he wouldn’t know if he ran into him. According to published reports, Sater is suspected in the theft of billions of dollars from the Kazakh government. Simpson figured out that some of the Trump organization’s money flowed in from Kazakhstan. He further learned that Sater and Trump were involved together in a company that built the Trump SoHo project in New York.
Simpson, moreover, tracked down scattered Trump financial information from required public filings. He studied the testimony of the litigious Trump in various cases. The journalist concluded that the magnate overstated his wealth for public consumption and understated it for tax purposes. Simpson dug deeply into the riddle of how someone could purportedly retain a billion dollars in personal assets despite repeatedly driving businesses into bankruptcy. Digesting it all, Simpson testified, “I reached an opinion about Donald Trump and his suitability to be president of the United States.” Trump, he concluded, was unfit, for reasons “of character and competence.”
Simpson conveys this judgment with great persuasive force. There are just two problems.
First, we do not conduct elections by having informed statesmen vet the candidates one at a time. Ours is a messy democratic process, which comes down to a choice between two nominees. This brings us back to Simpson’s blind spot: Trump’s opponent was the Democrat who was paying for Simpson’s second round of research: The May–November 2016 Trump–Russia project. That is a fact Simpson chose to conceal in his testimony. No wonder: Hillary Clinton matched Trump sleaze for sleaze. That doesn’t make Simpson’s concerns about Trump any less real, but it does sap much of their dispositive force.
Second, what Simpson was able to prove might establish that Trump was unfit to be president, but it does not establish that Trump colluded with Russia. The voters, not Simpson, get to decide who becomes president. Thus, the only pending question on which Simpson matters is whether there is a Trump–Russia conspiracy. On that question, Simpson’s showing cannot bear close scrutiny.
Smoke and Mirrors
That is true even on Simpson’s own terms. He concedes that the second phase of his investigation — i.e., the Clinton-sponsored Trump–Russia phase — is based not on a remorseless documentary record, the kind of evidence that is Simpson’s bread and butter. It is based on human intelligence in all its frailties. Simpson admits that, in his fact-based research business, human intelligence is not very helpful because “the question of whether something is accurate isn’t really asked. The question is whether it’s credible.” If you don’t know the human sources, if you can’t independently verify them, then you can’t judge their credibility. What human intelligence tells you is often intriguing, but it’s just as often wrong. If it can’t be corroborated, it rarely proves anything.
So, what did Simpson do? Just as he trusted the respected law firm of BakerHostetler to vouch for its upstanding Kremlin-connected client in the Prevezon case, so too did he trust the respected former intelligence agent Christopher Steele to vouch for Steele’s anonymous Russian sources.
But how do we know Steele’s good reputation is justified? We don’t. Simpson and the FBI are keen on him, but of course they’re invested here. As for the rest of us, we note that Steele’s profession is intelligence, not law enforcement. He has no track record of arrests and convictions, we can’t evaluate him on the basis of how his investigative work has stacked up when courts and defense lawyers start poking and prodding. As Simpson put it, “human intelligence isn’t good for . . . filing lawsuits.” A lot of it is highly attenuated hearsay, a telephone game remote from admissible evidence.
Steele may have had a good career, but our snapshot of his work is not flattering. In the dossier, some of the work is dated, some not, and at least one key date is wrong. Once his work was publicized, people he implicated vigorously denied his allegations and sued for libel. Far from refuting their protestations, Steele’s reaction has been to say his reports were “raw” and “unverified.” In truth, the dossier was never meant to see the light of day. He is not claiming that its allegations are true; rather, they were passed along to him by sources of varying levels of reliability. It is Simpson who vouches for Steele, not Steele himself. The latter says his rumor-ridden reports need to be run down by trained investigators. Except the FBI has been running them down for a year and a half now and, according to what former director James Comey said in Senate testimony last June, the bureau still has not corroborated Steele’s key allegations.
One thing we do know is that the most critical detail in Simpson’s testimony about the dossier was wildly wrong. Repeatedly, Simpson claimed that Steele told him the FBI had a source inside the Trump campaign whose information matched up with what Steele was telling the bureau — that’s why Steele thought the FBI believed him. Except it turned out there was no inside source. Simpson was probably referring to an Australian diplomat who had a boozy conversation with George Papadopoulos (a young campaign aide) about the Russians claiming to have Hillary Clinton’s emails. Either Steele got this crucial detail hopelessly wrong or he conveyed it to Simpson in a manner that was woefully confused. Either way, it does not commend their work.
And just how did they work? Steele has a network of unidentified Russian informants who knew he was beating the bushes for unsavory information about Trump — of which there is no shortage. The press reported on nauseatingly ingratiating remarks Trump made about Putin, speculating that maybe there’s something corrupt afoot. As night follows day, Steele started hearing about a corruption scheme. Trump hired Paul Manafort to run his campaign; next thing you know, Steele’s sources were saying they heard Manafort, with longstanding ties to a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian party, was managing the big Trump–Russia conspiracy. Carter Page, a tangential Trump adviser, went to Russia to make a speech. Steele’s crack informant network suddenly had Page in the middle of the scheme, meeting with top Putin operatives as Manafort’s emissary. Steele couldn’t prove that the meetings actually happened, or that Page even knows Manafort (which he apparently doesn’t). No matter: Fusion did some digging and found that if there were a scheme, these are the operatives who’d be in on it; and if there were a corrupt quid pro quo, these are the operatives who would be in a position to negotiate it. Corroboration!
Meanwhile, Simpson and Steele decided that America was at risk, so Steele went to his friends at the FBI. Like Simpson, the FBI had already concluded that Trump was dangerously unfit and that Steele (who helped them on their FIFA soccer investigation) was an impeccable investigator. Interestingly, Simpson insisted to the committee that going to the FBI was Steele’s idea — that Simpson and Fusion absolutely did not contact the bureau. What Simpson conveniently left out was that Nellie Ohr, one of the Fusion staffers he refused to identify, was a Russia expert who worked on Steele’s project and just happened to be married to top Justice Department official Bruce Ohr. We now know that Ohr had personal meetings with Steele and Simpson.
As the FBI and the Justice Department got the FISA wheels spinning, intelligence officials briefed Congress on Steele’s allegations. Naturally, Democratic leaders demanded that Trump’s ties to Putin be probed. At the same time, in the campaign stretch run, Simpson and Steele went to the media to tell them not only about Steele’s findings of Trump–Russia corruption but also that Steele was working with the FBI. Translation: This must be credible, because it is being investigated. And that’s exactly how it was reported.
It is the anatomy of a farce. The frantic churning of hearsay and innuendo about bad guys who, being bad guys, must have been doing bad things. But at the core, there is no concrete, admissible evidence of an espionage or corruption conspiracy; no solid identified sources, no verifiable wrongdoing. A circle of relentless suspicion with a hole in the middle where the crime is supposed to be.
Blackmail and Blackout
That being the case, why doesn’t President Trump just expose it? Why doesn’t he tell the intelligence agencies to declassify the relevant data? If the Justice Department and FBI abused their intelligence-collection authority by seeking a FISA-court warrant based on unverified information, if they in any way gulled a federal judge into believing that Steele’s rumor-mongering was refined U.S. intelligence reporting, why not disclose that misconduct and put the collusion chatter to rest?
Because, while Steele’s allegations may have been part of the Justice Department’s application for spying authority, perhaps even an essential part, you can bet the house that it is not the only information in the application.
Remember what we said: If you don’t have evidence of an offense, you must compensate with evidence of bad character. Here, the Justice Department and the FBI are in the same posture as Glenn Simpson: They may not have had a collusion case on Donald Trump, but they surely had lots of intelligence tying him to bad people and unsavory activity. Repeatedly in his testimony, Simpson said he and Steele were most alarmed that the Putin regime had blackmail material on Trump — information so egregious that it could enable the Kremlin to control the president of the United States. That, they insisted, is why it had to be investigated.
Now, there is always a chance that this is not true. Maybe Simpson overstated what the documentary record says about Trump. Maybe the FBI doesn’t have extensive evidence of organized-crime contacts and shady dealing. But let’s be real: Even people who supported Donald Trump, or at least the many who grudgingly voted for him because the alternative was Hillary Clinton, are under no illusions. And just as Steele figured the public would never see his dossier, the Justice Department and FBI must have figured the public would never see their classified FISA-court application, especially after President Hillary Clinton took office. Thus, they had a strong incentive to load it up with anything they thought they had on Trump. If, echoing Simpson and Steele, the Justice Department and FBI told the court that an investigation was necessary because Trump was vulnerable to blackmail by Putin, what kind of information do you suppose must be in the FISA application?
Even if that information doesn’t prove collusion, and even if some or all of it is suspect, would you want such an application disclosed if you were the president? —
Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.
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This post was originally published on Real Clear Politics.