Glenn Simpson's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, released this week, is a tale of two research projects. One is about the financier turned criminal-justice crusader William F. Browder. The other is about the American president, Donald J. Trump. Taken together, they shed light on some of the darkest corners of l'Affaire Russe. But what Simpson's testimony most starkly reveals are the hazards that journalists and politicians alike encounter when they stop working for the public — and start working for clients with tendentious personal agendas.
Let's begin with research on the researcher. Simpson is an investigative journalist turned — something. In 2009, he left the Wall Street Journal and, after one entrepreneurial false start, hung out a shingle for Fusion GPS. According to Simpson, its stock in trade is "business intelligence."
Simpson insists he's still an investigative reporter, in quest of nothing but the facts. At Fusion GPS, however, he works for corporations, individual billionaires and governments — figures who, unlike newspapers, pay real money. For the first time, there is one entity Simpson is not working for: readers.
But this week Simpson did end up serving readers, and especially those with bottomless appetites for minutiae on Trump's Russia ties. On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein made public the transcript of Simpson's August testimony. Simpson spoke to the senators and their lawyers for 10 hours; the document is 312 pages long.
The ex-journalist, it seems, had fingers deep in two Russian piroshki.
He organized what's widely considered a calumny campaign against Browder, Putin's nemesis and champion of the Magnitsky Act. That elegant piece of legislation limits banking and travel for Russian officials and oligarchs responsible for human rights abuses. (The more recent Global Magnitsky Act expanded its purview.)
At the behest of Republican groups and then Democratic ones, both conducting standard opposition research on Trump, Simpson also commissioned and oversaw the dossier that suggests Trump is vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Executive-produced by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, the dossier also says something about urine, the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and sex workers. That part of course is of no interest to anyone.
How does a onetime journalist come to pursue an attack on Putin's arch-enemy Browder and an exposé of Putin's pal Trump? That's where things get sticky.
To discredit the Steele dossier — which may point to a criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin — Republican senators in the hearing pressed Simpson on his ties to the firm that commissioned the Browder project. That company, Prevezon Holdings, is a Russian real-estate outfit run by the Katsyvs, an oligarch family close to Putin. The Justice Department had charged Prevezon with money laundering. Browder was expected to testify for the government.
Prevezon's emissary to Simpson was — stay with me as the Russian names pile up — Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer known to concerned citizens for her part in the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between representatives of the Trump campaign and those promising kompromat on Hillary Clinton.
Republican senators tried to make Simpson's venture with Veselnitskaya and Prevezon look treacherous. They had one high card: Virtually all in Congress view attempts to smear Browder, a powerful whistle-blower on financial crimes and international human-rights abuses, as heretical. Simpson, who has said he's sympathetic to Browder, claimed he was only after the facts, and he did turn up evidence of various financial shell games by Browder, shady maneuverings typical of the very rich. Prevezon, in turn, tried to make hay of these details, but failed. Browder's honor is intact. In May, Prevezon settled the Justice Department suit for $5.8 million.
A little sports reporting here: The Republicans fumbled it, and failed to discredit Simpson just as Fusion GPS had failed to discredit Browder. In his testimony, Simpson comes off as a mercenary for hire by anyone with fat stacks of bitcoin. And if he's not proud of his smear work on Browder, neither does he seem proud of the illustrious dossier, even though Steele decided it was sufficiently consequential to — as Simpson testified — take it to the FBI, radically amplifying earlier alarms that Trump's campaign was compromised.
In the smear-the-whistleblower tradition of Harvey Weinstein with his accusers and Prevezon with Browder, the Trump camp is now suing Fusion GPS for producing this dossier, and Buzzfeed for publishing it; they're claiming it's defamatory. More despicably, Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Lindsey Graham have urged the Justice Department to investigate Steele. For Prevezon to use a business intelligence firm to undermine its enemies is one thing. For public servants to try to bully the Justice Department into prosecuting theirs is quite another.
In 2007, before Fusion GPS was a twinkle in his eye, Simpson, as a journalist, noted a disturbing trend. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "A number of notable Washington insiders are earning big fees these days by representing controversial clients from the former Soviet Union."
Simpson's focus in that piece was William Sessions, a onetime FBI director who had turned to representing Semyon Mogilevich, a fearsome Russian mob boss. Simpson cited other men-about-D.C. who had crossed from cop to robber. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, no less, had been paid more than half a million dollars to get a visa for a Russian outlaw. And there was an advisor to Dole's presidential campaign who seemed to be on the payroll of a Putin-aligned Ukrainian billionaire. His name was Paul Manafort.
Whether Simpson sees himself as having crossed the same line — from D.C. insider to highly-paid courtesan of the Kremlin — we don't know. He doesn't touch on it in his testimony. But if reader-citizens have learned nothing else about Washington in the last year, we now know that many would-be public servants are indeed in service, just to someone other than the American people.