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Beyond the ‘Steele Dossier’

Donald Trump and the former Senior Advisor to the Trump Organization, Felix Sater.

By: Ernest A. Canning

The significance of the previously concealed transcripts of Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson’s unclassified Congressional testimony far exceeds the narrow, albeit accurate, observation that the transcripts blew a huge hole in one of numerous conspiracy theories about the so-called “Steele Dossier” floated by the President, his Republican allies in Congress and by right-wing propaganda outlets such as Fox “News”.

Contrary to earlier GOP spin, the FBI initiated its Trump/Russia investigation before the Bureau was first contacted by Christopher Steele, the former British MI-6 intelligence agent and author of the 16 field memos collectively known as the “Steele Dossier”.

Indeed, even Republicans now concede that point, as detailed by the feckless Nunes memo, which notes that the Trump/Russia probe was initially triggered by the loose lips of Trump campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos.

That timing issue, however, is but a tip of the iceberg.

We now know why Congressional Republicans sought for so long to keep the Simpson transcripts under wraps. They had hoped to erect a patently false narrative that depicted the “Steele Dossier” as a groundless and politically-motivated exercise in character assassination; a “poison” that so tainted everyone at the FBI who touched it, that it called for, in the words of Jeannie Pirro at Fox “News”, a “cleansing” and subsequent jailing of the individuals at the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) who have undertaken to investigate Trump/Russia.

By revealing both the sound investigative techniques applied by Simpson and Steele, and, most importantly, by explaining the real reasons why Steele reported his disturbing, yet entirely unanticipated, findings to the FBI, the now public Simpson Congressional transcripts expose the mendacity behind a vicious right-wing assault on the integrity of the Trump/Russia investigation and upon our federal law enforcement institutions. In the process, the Simpson transcripts raise a deeply unsettling question about the man now serving as the 45th President of the United States…

Republican/Democratic investigative divide

One top priority for Republicans, hoping to turn the work product of Fusion GPS against Democrats and career federal law enforcement officials, was to somehow flip the script.

A rather curious feature of the Aug. 22, 2017, 312-page Senate Judiciary Committee transcript [PDF] is that over the course of nine hours, the staff attorneys who represented Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) never asked Simpson any questions about the methods Fusion deployed with respect to its opposition research pertaining to Donald Trump. Nor did they ask about the reasons why Fusion retained Steele or what evidence pertaining to Trump/Russia emerged as a result of the Fusion/Steele intelligence investigations. Instead, those issues served as the central focus of questions posed by staff counsel representing Ranking Member Diane Feinstein (D-CA).

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican counsel focused exclusively upon the litigation-support services Fusion provided to Baker Hostetler (hereinafter “B.H.”), a reputable, Republican oriented law firm, which had been retained to defend Prevezon Holdings in a civil asset forfeiture/money laundering suit that had been filed against them by the Obama DOJ.

The GOP staffers’ focus on the Prevezon case was part of a classic move, all too often forced upon defense counsel faced with the unenviable task of defending a guilty client: investigate the investigators.

Simpson is a former Wall Street Journal investigative journalist. In 2009 Simpson, together with other investigative journalists, formed Fusion, a commercial public records research firm.

He testified that the bulk of Fusion’s paid-for research and analysis entails litigation support for major law firms. On occasion, Fusion also provides political opposition research. Irrespective of whether it has been retained for litigation or for oppo research, and irrespective of whether the oppo research client is connected to the Republican or Democratic Parties, Fusion says its methodology is the same. The research entails an “open-ended” pursuit of facts, Simpson explained to the Committee. They don’t allow a client’s goal to determine the results.

Commencing in 2009, Fusion began providing litigation support research on multiple cases for the B.H. law firm.

In 2014, B.H. partner Mark Cymrot, a former federal prosecutor, retained Fusion’s services for the Prevezon case. At the outset, Cymrot told Simpson that he’d checked out Denis Katsyv, Prevezon’s owner and believed him to be a legitimate businessman. (Cymrot described Prevezon as “a minor player in Russia, a fairly obscure real estate company”, according to Simpson’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 14, 2017).

Fusion’s principal role in the Prevezon case was to assist in discovery pertaining to William Browder, an American-born, British financier, whom an ICE agent identified during a deposition as the principal source of the DOJ’s allegations that gave rise to the Prevezon litigation.

Simpson says he first met Browder in Brussels while investigating Russian kleptocracy as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal. In 1996, Browder founded Hermitage Capital Management, a hedge fund that maintained an office in Moscow. At the time of their earlier meeting, Browder lectured Simpson “about how Vladimir Putin was not corrupt and how he [Putin] was the best thing that ever happened to Russia.” The Putin/Browder relationship, however, soured in 2005 after Browder evaded paying Russian taxes, according to Simpson.

There was nothing sinister or unusual about Cymrot’s decision to retain Simpson’s firm in order to obtain accurate background information that could potentially impugn the credibility of the the principal source of the DOJ’s allegations against his client. To an extent, that project bore fruit. Public records revealed that Browder “set up dozens of shell companies in Cypress and other tax havens to funnel money into Russia and to hold Russian securities.” Browder’s name and analogous business activities also surfaced in the infamous Panama Papers, according to Simpson.

Over the course of the Prevezon litigation, Browder resisted having to testify at a pretrial deposition. Browder, according to Simpson, “surrendered” his U.S. citizenship in 1998 and claimed that he could not be subpoenaed to testify because he had insufficient contacts in the U.S. Simpson’s public records research revealed otherwise.

As he explained in greater detail on Nov. 17, 2017 when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee, Simpson discovered that Browder, under cover of shell companies, owned of a mansion in Aspen, CO and a home in New Jersey. On three separate occasions, Simpson supervised the service of deposition subpoenas on Browder inside the U.S. On each occasion, Browder tossed the subpoena, ran off and then contested the validity of service. On the third occasion, service was videotaped. Browder was then ordered to testify.

One could see where the Senate Judiciary Committee Republican counsel were attempting to go, by the questions they posed regarding the now infamous Russian lawyer, Natasha Veselnitskaya. In July 2017, after it was publicly revealed that she had played a central role in the notorious June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. and others, Reuters unearthed records linking Veselnitskaya’s law firm to the Russian military intelligence service, the FSB.

Simpson had no way of knowing that back in June 2016 when he last worked on the Prevezon case. To the contrary, all he knew then was what he had been told by the B.H. attorneys who contracted him, to wit: that she was Prevezon’s Russian attorney.

As part of his litigation support duties, Simpson attended a June 8, 2016 dinner and a June 9, 2016 appellate court hearing, as did Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akmetshin, who is also said to have attended the Trump Tower meeting on that same day. But so what? A good number of individuals connected to B.H. attended the dinner and court hearing. Indeed, former Republican Attorney General Michael Mukasey represented Prevezon at the June 9 hearing. There was a language barrier, and Simpson denied speaking with Veselnitskaya on either occasion.

Simpson says he didn’t learn about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting until the story broke a year later in The New York Times.

During his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, Simpson dismissed, as absurd, the suggestion made by Republican staff counsel that he had performed work in the Prevezon case on behalf of the Russian government. Fusion provided sound background information and research to a reputable and conservative American law firm for use in a U.S. District Court case.

No sense of decency

In their zeal to shield the President from legal accountability, Congressional Republicans have resorted to the same character assassination techniques that had been deployed by the infamous Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy during one of the darkest political chapters of our history.

The principal technique deployed by McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn [see Footnote 1] was to falsely proclaim that they possessed secret evidence that established various government agencies were overrun by communist subversives.

For McCarthy, June 9, 1954 proved to be a date which will live in infamy. During a nationally televised hearing, Joseph N. Welch, a Boston attorney, who had been retained to represent the U.S. Army, demanded that Cohn produce a list of the 130 defense plant employees, who McCarthy claimed were communist subversives. McCarthy interceded, suggesting that Welch could obtain that information from an associate in his law firm, who McCarthy claimed was affiliated with a communist organization.

Welch first replied: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” After McCarthy foolishly persisted, Welch uttered the words that hastened an end to the Wisconsin demagogue’s Red-baiting reign of terror: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Just four days after Glenn Simpson testified before the House Intelligence Committee, America experienced another “have you no sense of decency?” moment.

On Nov. 21, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee’s Deputy General Counsel Scott L. Glabe filed a Declaration in response to Fusion’s application to limit the scope of a subpoena that had been issued by the Committee’s disgraced Chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA).

Fusion argued that by seeking two years of its banking records, even if it pertained to clients and work that had nothing to do with the work it performed either with respect to Trump/Russia or the Prevezon case, the Nunes subpoena violated Fusion’s first amendment rights and confidentiality obligations. Glabe countered with a McCarthy-like response: “The Committee has learned of allegations that Fusion GPS acted as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.” (Emphasis added).

Glabe failed to offer any evidence to support this serious accusation. He also failed to inform the court in his filing, that Simpson, via his Congressional testimony before both Houses of Congress, [see Footnote 2] debunked not only this utterly absurd allegation, but also the entire false narrative that Republicans had manufactured as part of their effort to discredit Simpson, Steele, the “dossier”, the FBI/DOJ and the very existence of a Trump/Russia investigation.

On January 14, 2018, the Los Angeles Times became an accomplice — wittingly or otherwise — to the GOP’s McCarthyesque smear campaign when it published an op-ed authored by Virginia Heffernan.

It is not entirely clear whether Heffernan, a former New York Times cultural affairs reporter and self-described evolution and climate-science denying “creationist“, intentionally set out to deceive her readers or whether she simply lacks the intellectual capacity to distinguish the difference between the questions posed by counsel and the answers a witness provides. What is abundantly clear is that the article she produced was not, as falsely represented by its headline, the product of a “A close reading of Glenn Simpson’s Trump-Russia Testimony“.

Simpson did not utter one word during his more than 15 1/2 hours of unclassified testimony before the Senate Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees that remotely supports Heffernan’s description of him as a “mercenary for hire” who engaged in a “calumny” campaign against William Browder as a “highly paid courtesan of the Kremlin.”

Mafia-connected President?

Donald Trump and the former Senior Advisor to the Trump Organization, Felix Sater.

 

Between October 2015 and November 8, 2016, Fusion engaged in an intensive search of all manner of public records pertaining to Donald Trump and Trump’s business organizations. Like the election cycle, the project had two phases. During the primaries, Fusion’s Trump research project was funded by The Washington Free Beacon, a rightwing media outlet which Simpson described as tied to the “free market” side of the Republican Party. After the primaries, Fusion was retained to perform the same task by Perkins Coie, a reputable law firm that was representing the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Fusion’s public records research unearthed a labyrinthine web of connections between the Trump family, shady business practices and organized crime — the Italian Mafia during the 1970s and 80s, and, subsequently, the far more sophisticated, Kremlin-connected Russian Mafia that operates under the dominion of the Russian intelligence services.

“As we got deeper and deeper into understanding Donald Trump’s business career and his history,” Simpson told Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) during his Nov. 14, 2017 appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, “it gradually reached a point where it seemed like most of the people around Trump had a connection to Russian organized crime or Russia in one way or another.” Those ties, he found, provided an alternative and sometimes fraudulent means to finance Trump’s real estate projects in various parts of the world.

Is Trump a compromised Russian asset?

Public records research has its limits. Steele, who had a sterling reputation for accuracy, had access to a reliable network of human intelligence. Fusion did not. Fusion retained Steele to look into Trump’s opaque Russian business relationships. What came back via Steele’s June 20, 2016 memo — the first of the 16 field memos that collectively became the “dossier” — was completely unanticipated; an “alarming” indication of “a political conspiracy” that was discovered around the same time as media reports about the hack of DNC emails surfaced.

In July 2016, Steele, an expert in the field of Russian intelligence agency tradecraft, informed Simpson that he had a professional responsibility to report his findings to the FBI, not only because he believed he’d uncovered a “crime in progress”, but also because he felt there was a chilling likelihood that the man who would become the 45th President of the United States was and is a compromised Russian asset. [see Footnote 3].

Simpson testified that following the receipt of each Steele memo, Fusion scoured public records seeking information relating to these startling revelations. Although Fusion could not independently verify the accuracy of all of the allegations set forth in the “Steele Dossier”, Simpson considered the work product to be credible. He noted that major portions of the “dossier” have since been publicly verified as a result of the ongoing Trump/Russia investigations and that no substantive portion of the “dossier” has been disproven.

The “dossier”, according to Simpson, was strictly Steele’s work product. Simpson made no effort to influence or alter the outcome of Steele’s human intelligence-based investigation. During his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, Simpson agreed with Schiff’s characterization of a Republican claim — that some of the information in the “dossier” came from Veselnitskaya — amounted to a reckless and baseless conspiracy theory.

A core problem with the “dossier” as a human intelligence-sourced work product is that some of its content, like the salacious “</a href=”http://www.newsweek.com/trump-comey-hookers-golden-showers-622604″>golden shower” allegation, [see Footnote 4] cannot be publicly verified without endangering the lives of Steele’s Russian sources. What we do know, however, is that, since assuming office, the President has engaged in a pattern of conduct that is consistent with Steele’s compromised Russian asset concern, to wit: (1) Trump’s continuing refusal to accept the evidence suggesting Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 election; (2) his unilateral decision to hand over highly classified information to Russia’s Foreign Minister and its Ambassador during an Oval Office meeting, and (3) the President’s refusal to enforce a bi-partisan Russia sanctions bill that he had signed into law only because Congress had more than enough votes to override a veto. (The measure came to the President’s desk after it was passed by a 98 – 2 vote in the Senate and 419 – 3 vote in the House.)

Mainstream media failure

Our nation is in the midst of a rolling constitutional crisis triggered by an ethically-challenged President and facilitated by a pliant Republican-controlled Congress. This has included McCarthyesque character assassination and an ongoing effort to purge high-ranking Justice Department and FBI officials.

This scandalous, politically-motivated assault on our federal law enforcement institutions threatens the very survival of our system of checks-and-balances and the rule of law. It is an ominous threat, however, that was preceded by an epic failure on the part of another institution that our nation’s founders regarded as vital to the survival of the republic.

The core function of a free press, as repeatedly recognized by our Supreme Court, is to ensure that the electorate can make “informed” decisions. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” James Madison observed; “and a people who wish to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Although the content of the Steele “dossier” will remain controversial until it is sorted out by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the same cannot be said about the public records information that was unearthed by Fusion — damning, publicly available information that should have been, but did not become the topic of widespread analysis and reporting by the American media before the 2016 election.

As noted by Prof. James T. Hamilton in Democracy’s Detectives (2016), this epic media failure was preceded by decades of newsroom budgetary cuts that have all but eviscerated the capacity of most print media to adequately perform the type of investigative journalism needed for the press to fulfill its vital, democracy-sustaining function as the Fourth Estate.

The extent to which Russian disinformation may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 election remains a topic for debate. There can be no doubt, however, that the same mainstream media, which the President now speciously condemns as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people“, played a key role in facilitating his election.

At the same time the major networks engaged in a near-total blackout of the issue-laden Bernie Sanders campaign while obsessing over paper thin claims against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, a dissembling demagogue, benefitted from “blanket coverage” — free airtime valued at somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion. While there was some focus on Trump’s “colorful and scandalous life”, this was often drowned out by the media’s “obsession” with Hillary Clinton’s emails.

It is in the vital area of much needed media reform, therefore, that we must move beyond the “Steele Dossier”.

***
FOOTNOTES:

1: McCarthy died in 1957. Cohn returned to private practice in New York, where, prior to being disbarred in 1986, he represented, among others, Mafia kingpins Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti. During that same period, Cohn represented a young New York real estate developer by the name of Donald J. Trump. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump lamented: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

2: On 11/21/17 Glabe apparently felt safe to broadside Simpson’s character via the baseless “Russian agent” accusation. He did so at a time when both Republican-controlled committees had concealed the content of Simpson’s unclassified Congressional testimony. When the House belatedly voted to release its transcript, Glabe sought to conceal his own role in the 11/17/17 hearing via redaction. But Glabe overlooked a single entry on page 120 of the transcript of Simpson’s House testimony where “Mr. Glabe” still appears. It’s obvious from the context that it was Glabe, the Republican’s House Intelligence Committee Deputy General Counsel who questioned Simpson regarding Fusion’s Prevezon litigation-support research and analysis activities.

3: In his overhyped memo, the inept House Intel Chair Rep. Devin Nunes portrays the “Steele dossier” as the product of partisan bias. He quotes Associate Deputy AG Bruce Ohr as stating that Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” What Nunes conveniently leaves out is the reason why Steele, an Intelligence Community professional, was so passionate in his opposition. Steele believed Trump was a compromised Russian asset.

If a compromised Russian asset were to serve as President, that would pose a threat to the national security of his native U.K., as well as to the national security of the United States.

4: The controversy surrounding Trump’s interlude with a porn star has significance beyond the fact that it reveals that he’s the type of individual who might exploit the company of Russian prostitutes in a posh hotel room. The President may have been able to purchase Stormy Daniel’s silence with a $130,000 payment, but if Russian intelligence has video that captured The Donald engaging in perverted sex acts with a group of prostitutes, no amount of money could buy the Kremlin’s silence. If those videos exist, Putin owns him.

* * *
Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968) and a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. He has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing