Late Wednesday, the Justice Department and FBI stopped their four-month old stonewall of subpoenas from Congress for documents and witnesses related to the Steele dossier, the infamous compilation of unverified and salacious material alleging President Trump had improper dealings with Russia. All of the material will now apparently be turned over.
The House Intelligence Committee had demanded that the Justice Department and FBI explain how they came to become involved with former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier after being paid by Fusion GPS. The company is a notorious Washington opposition research firm that in turn was paid to dig up dirt on Donald Trump by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The committee had demanded FBI and Justice Department compliance with subpoenas it issued last August by the close of business Wednesday, or the House could move to hold government officials in contempt of Congress.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, says access to Justice Department officials and documents is important because the Steele dossier may have been used by the FBI to gain permission from a federal court to conduct surveillance on Trump campaign officials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is no fan of President Trump, says that after viewing key Justice Department documents in secret he is “extremely concerned” about the department’s use of the Steele dossier. He has called for a special counsel to investigate this.
For his part, Nunes says “it seems the DOJ and FBI need to be investigating themselves.” Since they apparently won’t do that, Nunes is happy to help out.
But it won’t be easy. Nunes and his fellow investigators have been relentlessly attacked by Democrats and by Fusion GPS for insisting that two things be probed: both the possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and the possible misuse of federal intelligence agencies during the 2016 election.
Nunes and his fellow panel members note that Bruce Ohr, a senior Justice Department official, was demoted in December for not disclosing meetings with Fusion GPS. Ohr is married to a former employee of the opposition-research firm.
Fusion GPS co-founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch went on the attack this week in a New York Times op-ed they wrote, comparing Nunes and his allies to the defenders of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. They accused Nunes of trying “to tarnish our firm to punish us for highlighting (Trump) links to Russia.”
Curiously missing from the op-ed by Fusion’s founders is the fact that at the same time the firm was compiling the Steele dossier at the behest of Democrats, it was working for a Russian oligarch. The oligarch had ties to the Kremlin and was trying to undermine U.S. sanctions targeting Russian officials who have engaged in human rights violations.
Bill Browder, a former investor whose Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Russian jail while facing bogus fraud charges, was able to get Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act in 2012. The law froze the Western financial assets of some Russian officials and restricted their travel.
Russian interests have since furiously tried to smear Browder and undermine the Magnitsky Act. They found Fusion GPS all too willing to aid in the smear.
Browder told Congress last year that Fusion GPS actively tried to discredit him. In July 2016 he filed a complaint with the Justice Department charging Fusion GPS with working on behalf of the Russian government and its interests. So far, no action has been taken by the Justice Department.
Fusion GPS has a long history of using ruthless tactics. Human rights activist Thor Halvorssen testified before Congress that Fusion GPS had “smear experts” and used “scorched earth methods” to discredit his work against the authoritarian regime in Venezuela.
In 2012, Fusion GPS was paid to dig through the divorce records of a Mitt Romney donor. Fusion may also have played a role in the infamous meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in June 2016.
Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, met with Veselnitskaya before and after the meeting. According to NBC News, the negative information on Democrats she tried to peddle at the Trump Tower meeting stemmed from research conducted by Fusion GPS.
Simpson and Fritsch end their New York Times op-ed with a stirring call for congressional Republicans to release the transcripts of their private interviews. They write that “three congressional committees have heard over 21 hours of testimony from our firm.”
But Taylor Foy, a spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday that “despite his public statements, Mr. Simpson and his attorney demanded during the interview that the transcript be kept confidential.”
The Judiciary Committee interview came after weeks of negotiation in which Simpson refused an invitation, citing Fifth Amendment claims against self-incrimination, to appear before the committee in an open hearing.
By not accepting that invitation, Simpson declined an “opportunity for transparency,” Foy notes. Indeed, Foy claims that Fusion GPS “has failed to provide the Committee with documents and responses to follow-up questions after the interview.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee says it will release the full transcripts of its interviews with Fusion GPS officials as soon as it concludes its inquiry. In the meantime, the claims by Simpson that he wants “full disclosure” ring hollow.
After all, Simpson and fellow Fusion GPS partner Thomas Catan both invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying in public on their firm’s activities. That kind of behavior is the opposite of transparency and smacks of the Nixon-like tactics that Fusion GPS is accusing its critics of engaging in.
By all means, let the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia go forward. Enough evidence has surfaced about the connections that campaign had with sleazy players like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to justify further digging.
But let’s also have a real probe of the dirt-diggers at Fusion GPS and the possible collusion they had with federal agencies to undermine the Trump campaign. Now that the Justice Department is finally turning over its records to the House Intelligence Committee we can do both.