WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Fusion GPS chief Glenn Simpson told a Senate panel last year that a controversial dossier his research firm produced alleging Donald Trump had suspicious connections with Russians was based on valid information and that the document's author briefed the FBI on his findings, according to a newly released transcript.
Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a closed-door interview in August 2017 that the author of the dossier, former British spy Christopher Steele, decided to approach the FBI in July 2016.
"He thought from his perspective there was an issue - a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed," Simpson said.
He added that when Steele met with an FBI official that September, the official told Steele the bureau "had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source."
The dossier, with its unverified and in some places salacious allegations, has been a subject of dispute since it became public ahead of Trump's inauguration.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's top Democrat, released the 312-page transcript of Simpson's appearance on Tuesday (Jan 9), saying she needed to combat "innuendo and misinformation" being spread about the interview.
The talk circulating about the transcript is "part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice," Feinstein of California said in a statement. "The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public."
Republicans and Democrats have tangled in recent weeks over the origins of the dossier, which was funded in part by Trump's political opponents, and how the FBI and other agencies may have used the material in their investigations. Republicans have suggested it may have provided an improper basis for the FBI to initiate its investigation of Trump and Russia.
Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, blasted Feinstein's decision to release the transcript unilaterally, saying it could reduce the prospects for other witnesses, such as Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to agree to meet with the panel.
"Her action undermines the integrity of the committee's oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid voluntary testimony relating to the independent recollections of future witnesses," Foy said in an e-mailed statement.
The marathon conversation between Simpson and lawmakers touched on delicate territory while leaving tantalising details hanging, including the identity of a person in Trump's circle who Simpson says provided information to US investigators.
Simpson said that an FBI official told Steele that the bureau had a "human source inside the Trump organization," but a person with knowledge of the transcript said Simpson was referring to George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.
The New York Times reported on Dec 30 that FBI's initial investigation began after Papadopoulos revealed to an Australian diplomat in London that Russia had political dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton. Australian officials then passed the information to their American counterparts, the Times reported.
Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the campaign.
Simpson also suggested the FBI had a "voluntary source, someone who was concerned about the same concerns we had."
The person familiar with the transcript said this was likely a reference to the Australian official mentioned by the New York Times.
Simpson, a former journalist who co-founded Fusion GPS, denied strongly in the interview that the dossier was phony.
"We can argue about what's prudent and what's not, but it's not a fabrication," he said.
'YOU CALL 911'
Simpson told the committee that he became increasingly concerned about potential Trump connections to Russia during the summer of 2016.
"To me this was like, you know, you're driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911, right?" Simpson said.
Over that period, he said, "the situation with the hacking of the Democrats and the efforts by the Russians to influence the election and the possibility the Trump Organization was, in fact, doing things to curry favor with the Russians became more and more serious, as external developments occurred."
Asked what he meant, Simpson pointed to Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who showed up in Moscow to give a speech; unexplained changes to the Republican Party platform ahead of the GOP convention; and that Trump "continues to say mysterious things about what a great guy Putin is."
Simpson said he had asked Steele at one point during the summer of 2016 if he'd ever heard back from the FBI following that initial July meeting "because it was obvious there was a crime in progress."
Simpson said the crime he was referring to was "espionage - they were hacking into the computers of Democrats and think tanks."
Feinstein's decision to release the transcript on her own authority comes as the panel's efforts to conduct a bipartisan Russia probe have been disintegrating into bitter partisanship.
On Jan 5, Judiciary Chairman Grassley of Iowa and fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham took the unusual step of sending a criminal referral to the Justice Department asking it to investigate whether Steele made false statements to federal investigators, a move that Feinstein slammed as a distraction.
Graham of South Carolina said that he wants a special counsel to review how Steele conducted himself in distributing information contained in the dossier and how the Justice Department used it.
"The rule of law depends on the government and all who work on its behalf playing by the rules themselves," Graham said. "I hope the Department of Justice will carefully review our letter and take appropriate action."
Fusion initially was hired through a conservative website, the Washington Free Beacon, during the Republican primaries to dig up dirt on Trump. Later in the 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton and the Democratic National Committee paid Fusion GPS through a law firm for some of the research that resulted in the dossier.
But in the August interview, Simpson and his lawyer, asked repeatedly who commissioned research into the presidential candidate, declined to name them.
Simpson also demurred when asked to provide specifics about people who provided information to Steele. The ex-intelligence official was adept at gleaning information about Russia, where disinformation is a known pitfall, Simpson said. When Simpson was asked to detail steps Steele took to verify his sources' credibility, his lawyer cut in to stop the line of questioning.
The 35-page report drew on information from Russian contacts and concluded that Russia had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for at least five years and fed his campaign "valuable intelligence" about Clinton.
Trump has derided the findings, as recently as Dec 26 when he wrote on Twitter: "'Dossier is bogus. Clinton Campaign, DNC funded Dossier. FBI CANNOT (after all of this time) VERIFY CLAIMS IN DOSSIER OF RUSSIA/TRUMP COLLUSION. FBI TAINTED.' And they used this Crooked Hillary pile of garbage as the basis for going after the Trump Campaign!"