By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON — The former British spy who compiled a dossier of allegations about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia brought the document to the FBI in July 2016 because he was worried about “whether a political candidate was being blackmailed,” according to a congressional interview transcript released Tuesday.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, revealed the transcript from an August closed-door interview with Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of the political opposition research firm Fusion GPS. The firm commissioned the dossier, which was initially paid for by a conservative website and then later by Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Feinstein made the transcript public over the objections of Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who called the move “confounding” in a statement shortly after Feinstein made it public. Grassley said the release could undermine attempts to interview other witnesses in the committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In the transcript, Simpson said Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the dossier, took it to the FBI and said his concern was “whether or not there was blackmail going on, whether a political candidate was being blackmailed or had been compromised.”
The dossier is a compilation of memos written by Steele during the 2016 campaign that contained allegations of connections between Trump and Russia, including that Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin.
Trump has derided the dossier as a politically motivated hit job. Following his lead, several GOP-led committees are now investigating whether the dossier formed the basis for the FBI’s initial investigations. Simpson has denied that it did and, according to the transcript, told investigators that the FBI told Steele that the government also had intelligence from “an internal Trump campaign source.” Simpson would not name the source.
According to Simpson, Steele flew to Rome to meet an FBI agent stationed there for his second debriefing before the November election. He said the FBI contact told Steele that there was renewed interest in his research because the bureau had corroborated some of the material.
Simpson told investigators it was his understanding that the FBI “believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.”
According to a person familiar with Simpson’s testimony who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, Simpson did not mean to suggest the FBI had a direct, or witting, source of information from within the Trump campaign.
Instead, the person said Tuesday, the episode Simpson was apparently referring to involved communication between George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and an Australian diplomat. The New York Times reported last month that Papadopoulos told the diplomat that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Clinton and that the Australians’ subsequent tip to the FBI about the conversation helped persuade the bureau to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Simpson also said Steele severed his contacts with the FBI before the election following disclosures that the bureau’s inquiry had found no connection between Trump campaign and Russia and concerns that it was being “manipulated for political ends by the Trump people.”
Citing Republicans’ attempt to discredit the dossier, Simpson had called for the release of the closed-door interviews he has done as part of congressional Russia investigations, including his interview with the Judiciary committee. He has also talked to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Feinstein said Americans deserve to see what Simpson said.
“The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.”
In a statement, Fusion GPS said it “commends Sen. Feinstein for her courage.”
The disagreement between Grassley and Feinstein is further evidence of a breakdown on the panel after an initially bipartisan investigation. In an angry statement, Grassley said that “neither the special counsel, nor any other congressional committee, has released transcripts of private interviews in the course of their investigations.” He is referring to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is also investigating the Russian meddling.
Other Republicans on the panel were less concerned. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters that the release was a “good idea” and that transparency is important as they work to understand the impact of the dossier.
Grassley and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham last week asked the Justice Department to investigate Steele, saying they had information that he may have made false statements to the government. Democrats criticized the move, saying they were targeting someone who had reported wrongdoing, not committed it.
Simpson told investigators that Steele is “basically a Boy Scout,” saying he has worked with Steele on and off since 2009 and he knew him to be “a person who delivered quality work in very appropriate ways.”
He also disputed Republican charges that his firm is linked to Democrats, saying the firm takes clients from both sides of the aisle.