December 1, 2019


Fusion GPS Founder: Spreading Corruption Is Kremlin Foreign Policy (Andrea Bernstein, December 1, 2019, Pro Publica)

[WNYC's Andrea Bernstein]n: In the last three years, what have we learned that is either confirmed, or refuted, or somehow changed in your understanding of Trump and business dealings with the former Soviet Union?

Simpson: I mean, most simply that he is in business with a lot of people who are in organized crime and that he -- in some cases -- clearly knew that. And I'd say that's the broadest observation you can make about it.

Bernstein: You're talking about something we've learned in the last three years?

Simpson: Actually, some of it dates back before that. I mean, the start of our inquiry was really just into his business and whether he was a good businessman, whether he was as rich as he said he was. Then one of the first things we came across was Felix Sater. Frankly, it was no great investigative coup. I just was reading old New York Times clips.

And there was an article about this guy with this criminal past who appeared to be close to Donald Trump. And that set me off looking into court records to see what else I could find out about [Sater]. And eventually it became clear that this guy was indeed really close to Trump. His family is Jewish, but they're from Russia. He immigrated to the United States as a child. His father had a criminal history, seemed to be involved in some sort of organized crime activity. So that was the beginning. That was the first dot in what turned out to be a long dot connecting exercise.

Bernstein: So let's just back up one second. For people who don't know or really understand what Fusion GPS is, what is it?

Simpson: I left The Wall Street Journal in 2009. I had a really great job as a free-range investigative reporter, and I tended to cover financial crime, international organized crime. But the business was changing, the newspaper was changing. It had been acquired by News Corp. And I decided it was time to try something else. And I thought about what I really loved about journalism. And the thing that stayed with me over the years and never got old was the reporting aspect of digging into stuff and trying to figure out what was going on. So I decided to try to set up a business where I could continue to do that.

We set up Fusion in 2010 and began marketing our services as acquirers of reliable information for people who need information to make decisions -- figure out why they're not winning in a contract competition, to help them manage a complex piece of litigation. And, as it turned out, it's a useful service that is in demand and is economical for a lot of clients, given the other alternatives, like using a paralegal or someone else to collect documents. I mean, you know, we collect documents, that's essentially what we do for the most part.

Bernstein: How do you sort of square the idea of doing research for hire with the journalistic practice that you're carrying out?

Simpson: Well obviously a newspaper has a special status in our society as a sort of independent entity and struggles to be fair and impartial. And obviously, if you're working for a private company, the relationship is different. However, the service that we sell is neutral in the sense that what we promise people is that we will acquire the information they need to make a decision.

We don't sell outcomes. We gather information. And part of the pitch when we talked to a new client is: Please don't tell us what you think is happening or what you want to try to prove or any of that. Let us just hoover up all the information and we'll tell you what we think is happening.

Bernstein: So you say in your book -- and you've talked about -- how most of your clients are litigation clients. How did you end up with a Trump assignment?

Simpson: Well, I spent most of my adult life in Washington, much of it covering politics, political corruption campaigns and elections. So I know a lot of people in that world on both sides. So in 2012 when the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, some people on the other side asked us to look into his business career -- how much taxes he paid, whether he shipped jobs overseas, that sort of thing. And we were able to produce a lot of interesting, reliable material that was in the public domain but not easy to find.

In 2015, along comes another tycoon who wants to be the Republican nominee for president. And we thought, well, you know, we did this four years ago. It was a lot of fun. Let's see if someone wants us to do it again. In this case we thought of doing it in the Republican primaries instead of in the general election. So the natural client would be someone on the Republican side who wanted to stop Donald Trump.

Bernstein: And that was your client?

Simpson: That was, yeah. We reached out to a Republican friend of mine and I said, "Hey, would you guys be interested in procuring some research on Donald Trump's business career? You know, his lawsuit, how he treats his employees, his multiple bankruptcies," that sort of thing.

Bernstein: At that time, did you have an idea where the research would take you?

Simpson: Absolutely none. It was, I mean, the way we structure our agreements with most clients is that it's a 30-day agreement.

You did not have to sign a long-term contract and basically you get to taste the cooking and if you like it you can keep going. So it was originally just a 30-day assignment to write up, you know, what we could find on his business career and an overall assessment. It was an amazing sort of first month.

I had never, ever seen so many lawsuits involving one person in my life. There was just so much litigation. It was really unbelievable. But in general, the litigation was over his lousy business practices. I mean, he's just a dishonest person. He doesn't pay his vendors. He goes bankrupt repeatedly. He misstates the financial condition of his properties. And in the beginning it was just a picture of a guy who was not a reliable person and not a good businessman.

Bernstein: Now you had done -- as a journalist -- a number of stories on Paul Manafort. Long before he went to work for Trump.

Simpson: So when Peter [Fritsch] and I worked together in the Brussels bureau of The Wall Street Journal -- from about 2005 to 2008 -- what was fresh and new in Europe at the time was Russian organized crime and kleptocracy and the transition of the former Soviet Union to market economies.

A lot of criminal groups were sort of seeping eastward or moving up in their own countries and getting in legal trouble, having problems with Western law enforcement, needing influence in the West. And one of the first people to recognize that this was a booming market for his talents was Paul Manafort. And so he began doing political consulting in Ukraine working for Russian oligarchs. And part of that work was in fact exercising influence on their behalf in Washington. [...]

Bernstein: One of the things, I think, that people have reacted to since the release of the dossiers [is the idea that] Putin has some big thing on Trump's business. And I mean, we know a lot more. We know, for example, that they were secretly negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow and asking the Kremlin for favors during the presidential campaign. But I don't think that we understand, like: Is there some incredibly bad business deal gone wrong or is there something else that Putin has that we should be looking for that's still out there? What do you think?

Simpson: I think we definitely don't know the whole story. I think that we can make a couple of observations. You know, one of the big ones is what you referred to, which is Trump was negotiating a secret business deal to do a development in Russia while running for president, and he hid that fact from the American people. That is kompromat. That's the definition of kompromat. Kompromat is not sexual blackmail. It's a shared secret. Any shared secret that is embarrassing, incriminating. So if I know something about you -- and you know I know -- then I got kompromat on you. So --

Bernstein: And that's a Russian term, kompromat.

Simpson: Correct.

Bernstein: And it's used all the time in Russian politics.

Simpson: All the time. So [Steele's] primary concern was that the Russians had kompromat on Trump. And you know, he's clearly right. They did have kompromat on Trump. We didn't know what it was, or what all of it was. But this was one of the possibilities. It's in the original early memos. Whether there's more, and whether it also involves money, we don't know. He's gone to great lengths to prevent people from finding out what else there might be there. I'll add parenthetically that, you know, Peter and I sort of saw things a little differently than [Steele] and Orbis with regard to the famous pee tape, which was, you know, it seemed just to be unprovable.

And from my perspective, sex is probably the one thing you can't blackmail Donald Trump over. 'Cause he seems to want everyone to know that he engages in lots of sex. So, you know, I think [Steele's] training as an intelligence professional caused him to focus more on that than we did.

Bernstein: You have said that this -- what's now known as the dossier -- this collection of memos was raw intelligence and that people have misunderstood it. In fact, in the book, you outline some pretty colorful language that was used when it was released. You were not happy.

Simpson: Absolutely not.

Bernstein: Why?

Simpson: Well, so you know, Peter and I worked at The Wall Street Journal most of our careers, and it was a very exacting place. And you know, you would do so much reporting that would end up on the cutting room floor before you publish anything. And when we deliver our work to clients, it is like a term paper. It's got footnotes, it's got supporting documentation.

And things like this, they go into the research, but they're not intended to be read by anyone, including our clients sometimes. It was professionally horrifying. It was also reckless, we think, because it seemed as if very little consideration was given to the possibility that -- if this document was true -- whether they were going to get some people killed.

Posted by at December 1, 2019 9:15 AM