Opposition Researchers Behind 'Steele Dossier' Speak Out
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now let's take a look at one area of interest to congressional panels looking into President Trump's ties to Russia back when he was campaigning for office. It's a 35-page document that's come to be known as the Steele dossier. It was commissioned by a political research firm, Fusion GPS, to prove the connection between the campaign of then-candidate Trump and officials in the Russian government.
The Steele dossier is back in the news because the founders of Fusion GPS claim they have been attacked and misrepresented by the conservative media and by President Trump himself. They've testified before Congress behind closed doors. And they claim that their testimony will set the record straight. To unpack all of this, we are joined now by journalist and author Luke Harding. He writes for The Guardian and joins us now from their offices in London. Thanks for joining us.
LUKE HARDING: Thank you.
CHANG: So can you just for a moment take us back to the origins of the Steele dossier? What is this thing, and why did it become such a big deal?
HARDING: Well, Christopher Steele is a former MI6 - that's British intelligence - spy with extensive knowledge of the Soviet Union, where he lived, and then Russia. And he went into private business intelligence in 2009 and has a pretty kind of solid track record both in London, where I am, and in Washington - pretty well-regarded. And he was hired by Glenn Simpson from Fusion GPS, really, to answer a sort of simple question in the spring of 2016, which was, what are Donald Trump's connections, business or otherwise, to Russia?
CHANG: OK. And what did the dossier find?
HARDING: Well, I mean, the dossier found, really, what Steele described as a kind of conspiracy going back a long way - at least five years - a transactional relationship where Trump was passing information - or people around him were passing information - to Moscow about Russian oligarchs living in the United States. And by way of kind of return, the Russians were sort of helping Trump's kind of nascent political career. And now, of course, we know what happened last year. We've had inquiries, but we've also had kind of hacking. And we've had U.S. intelligence saying unambiguously that they believe that Moscow and Vladimir Putin tried to kind of push Donald Trump across the line.
CHANG: And we should add that much of what appears in the dossier is still unsubstantiated and is in dispute. Can you tell us a little bit about the founders of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson and Peter Frisch. Who are they? They're journalists, correct?
HARDING: Well, they're former journalists. I mean, Glenn Simpson was a distinguished correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He specialized in what you might call post-Soviet murk, Russian organized crime and the way that kind of Vladimir Putin's kind of country has seen a kind of merger between criminal elements in the state. And so he was someone with a kind of track record. He's a gun for hire. I mean, he's worked for kind of different clients over the years. But I think he - I mean, I can't speak for him, but I think he's been increasingly frustrated with the sort of partisan way that Republicans have gone after his firm.
And there's one very important aspect to his kind of article, which is that the FBI, he says, began investigating Trump and Russia not because of the Steele dossier but because of separate warnings from intelligence agencies in my country, the United Kingdom, but also in Europe and, indeed, Australia who are picking up meetings between Donald Trump campaign people and Russian intelligence assets. And this is what galvanized the whole inquiry.
CHANG: And just to - why is it so important to Glenn Simpson to make it clear that the Steele dossier did not trigger the Russia investigation?
HARDING: Because these attacks on Fusion and Glenn Simpson's personal credibility fall away if the dossier was the only source of reporting. And you can say - I actually personally think the dossier is broadly correct. But if you say it's all wrong, false, fake news and so on, then you have no inquiry. But more problematic for the White House is the fact that the U.S.'s very good allies who routinely share intelligence were saying as early as late 2015 and spring 2016, wake up. There are some worrying contacts going on in London and other European cities between, basically, Russian spies and Trump people. And you should know about this. Now, that's much harder to dismiss. And I think it's more problematic for President Trump.
CHANG: And why did investigators on the Hill become so interested in investigating Fusion GPS eventually? They sat for 21 hours of testimony or something like that.
HARDING: Yeah. I mean, I think this is probably one for Glenn Simpson to answer. But I think it's a kind of classic smear. And you focus on process, who paid for what and so on. And I'd make two points. First of all, when Christopher Steele began investigating all of this stuff, he didn't know who the client was. He was simply putting this query out to his sources, who, by the way, had proved reliable in other areas. So I think Steele is someone with a credible track record who was alarmed by what he discovered and alerted the FBI.
CHANG: Why do you think they want their testimony to be released? I mean, they say that it will set the record straight. What do you think the testimony will show? What do they say it will show?
HARDING: Well, they say it will show that Fusion GPS are a kind of professional outfit who were relying on or employing or subcontracting Steele, a kind of professional with a kind of good track record and that they will be kind of vindicated. And, ultimately, the most important question here is, is the Steele dossier true, and is collusion true? And I think Steele feels - and Glenn Simpson feels - that, sooner or later, they will be vindicated.
CHANG: But do you think there's any reason to believe that that testimony will actually be released?
HARDING: Well, it's not in the interests of congressional Republicans to do that.
HARDING: So I suspect for now we'll have to wait.
CHANG: All right. That's The Guardian's Luke Harding. Thank you so much for joining us.
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