steele dossier

Fusion GPS Lights a Candle for the ‘Pee Tape’

Glenn Simpson, Fusion GPS co-founder. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On the fourth floor of an unremarkable building off Dupont Circle, above a Starbucks, a second-hand clothing store, and a podiatrist, and behind an unmarked door dimpled with a peephole, is a fairly small and modest office space. It is not the kind of high-tech headquarters you imagine would house a “premium research and strategic intelligence” firm, let alone the one that commissioned one of the most consequential political documents since the Pentagon Papers. But it’s where the dozen or so employees of Fusion GPS do their work, and where the infamous Steele dossier — a 35-page intelligence report describing a secret Russian plot to help Donald Trump get elected president, first published by BuzzFeed in early 2017 — got its start.

You’d be forgiven for imagining a more elaborate lair. Since 2016, Republicans, Fox News, and far-right websites have attacked co-founder Glenn Simpson and his partners on a near daily basis, alleging Fusion had fabricated the dossier on behalf of the Democrats. Trump has tweeted about Fusion or its work dozens of times. “Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?” (Visitors to the office are greeted by a row of gold frames memorializing Trump’s tweets.) California representative Devin Nunes, who is suing Fusion for impeding his investigation into the Steele dossier, has thrown Fusion’s name around throughout the impeachment inquiry as if it were a network of Bond villains. Yet, aside from Simpson’s testimony before the Senate and House intelligence committees, Fusion’s partners have remained conspicuously silent in the wake of the 2016 election.

Simpson, who is tall with salt-and-pepper hair and a white goatee, emerges from his office to greet me and introduce Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch. The three of us settle down in a conference room where two prayer candles sit on a shelf in the corner — one for Robert Mueller and the other for the “pee tape.” (If you haven’t been online in the last three years, the Steele dossier contains the unsubstantiated assertion that a tape exists of sex workers, at Donald Trump’s direction, peeing on a hotel bed once occupied by the Obamas.) I’ve come to discuss their new book Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump, which details their actions in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the 2016 election. They hope the book will clarify some misconceptions. “I would put us with the brave people who are going up to Capitol Hill and testifying, if I can be so bold,” Simpson says. “For two full years the president of the United States and the majority in Congress had unlimited ability to message against us and against the idea of what we exposed. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that there’s confusion about this whole investigation.”

The truth is, it wasn’t just Republicans who viewed Fusion’s work with skepticism. When BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier, its 17 memos became a Rorschach Test for politicos, conspiracy theorists, and anyone else who had an opinion about Trump (so, everyone). Simpson and Fritsch say that the dossier was never intended to be read as a perfectly factual document meant for public consumption — it was a summary of notes meant to be a starting point of an investigation. The salaciousness and gravity of the many accusations meant even Trump’s critics seemed eager to write it off.

In the wake of the Mueller report, however, the Steele dossier seems prescient, if flawed. Many of the allegations are now commonly accepted as truth: Carter Page met privately with Kremlin officials, Russia was behind the DNC hack. Neither reporters nor Mueller have been able to verify much of the dossier, including definitive evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But at least some of the information that hasn’t yet panned out — like the pee tape — has been demonstrated to have basis in conversations that were happening in Moscow during the campaign. (Damaging “tapes” were referenced in the Mueller report in text messages between Michael Cohen and a Russian businessman months before the dossier became public.) “To look at an intelligence document like that and fault it for not having total verisimilitude with the facts is kind of an unfair yardstick,” Fritsch says of the Steele dossier. “The foundational claim of the dossier is almost impossible to dispute, sitting here at the end of 2019.”

Before co-founding Fusion in 2010, Simpson and Fritsch were journalists at The Wall Street Journal. They first started working together in 2006 while assigned to the paper’s Brussels bureau. Simpson was a seasoned investigative reporter covering corruption and transnational and organized crime, and Fritsch was his editor. They left journalism around the time of the Great Recession, citing changes Rupert Murdoch made to the Journal’s investigative coverage and an inability to find new jobs that had the latitude they’d had at the paper.

Years later, their dynamic is still that of a dogged reporter and his even-keeled editor. Simpson, who the New York Times once described as “brash, obsessive, and occasionally paranoid,” Juuls throughout our interview, eventually leaving to retrieve a pod refill from his office. While his partner and I talk, he looks at his phone, until Fritsch, like a parent scolding his teenage son, tells him to put it away.

Fusion specializes in collecting and sorting public records, usually working as contractors for law firms tracking down assets, important documents, or people evading subpoenas. The nuts and bolts of the work Simpson does as a researcher is identical to what he did as a journalist, but the clients are often very different. The disgraced blood-testing startup Theranos hired Fusion in 2015 to do a “mind-numbing document dive” for the company, researching whistleblower lawsuits brought against Theranos’s competitors, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp; later that year, a former colleague at the Journal, John Carreyrou, exposed the company as a gigantic fraud. “You spend your lifetime as a journalist and you develop a self-image one way and there is a moment of epiphany when you realize that’s not what you are anymore,” Simpson says.

Simpson and Fritsch say that Fusion rarely does political work, but in September 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, backed by conservative billionaire Paul Singer, contracted the firm to collect research on Trump, whose candidacy it opposed at the time. The Fusion team began cataloguing Trump’s long history of lies, contradictions, dubious business deals, and ties to organized crime; Village Voice investigative reporter and longtime Trump chronicler Wayne Barrett gave them access to boxes of files on Trump collecting dust in his Brooklyn brownstone. When, in late March of 2016, Trump tapped Paul Manafort to run his campaign, alarm bells went off in Fusion’s office. Years earlier, Simpson had written stories about Manafort for the Journal and, more recently, he’d looked into Manafort’s suspicious business dealings for a separate client.

By the spring of 2016, it was clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee. The Washington Free Beacon pulled its funding, presumably because it didn’t want to finance opposition research for the Democrats. Simpson and Fritsch felt it was important to continue investigating Trump, but Simpson wasn’t thrilled about the one person who would likely be interested in funding that work. Simpson had watched the Clintons wield their foundation like a “21st-century political machine built on peddling influence to foreign oligarchs and other foreign interests.” Nonetheless, Fritsch reached out to a “senior figure in the Democratic Party establishment” to gauge their interest. Ultimately, they were contracted by Marc Elias, an attorney representing the DNC and the Clinton campaign. “The only way I could see working for HRC is if it is against Trump,” Simpson wrote in an email to his partners.

It’s around this point in the timeline that the conspiracy theories begin, and Simpson and Fritsch’s book goes to great lengths to defend Fusion against them. They say that while Democrats were paying for the work, the campaign did not direct it, and Elias, they claim, served as a kind of firewall between Fusion and Clinton. When the firm contracted Steele to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, the former spy apparently didn’t know who Fusion’s client was. Days after Steele filed the first of his memos, Steele called Simpson to say he felt obligated to report his findings to the FBI. Steele believed he was witnessing a “crime in progress.” Simpson and Fritsch chose not to tell Elias, but eventually they also alerted law enforcement officials to their findings, including Bruce Ohr, a senior official in the Department of Justice. Ohr’s wife, a former CIA analyst and expert in Russian history, had done freelance work for Fusion. Simpson and Fritsch never imagined their connections to Steele, Clinton, the FBI, and Ohr would become public and subsequently provide the framework for a deep-state conspiracy theory.

To complicate matters even more, beginning in 2014 Fusion started doing litigation support for a law firm representing Prevezon, a Russian company trying to stop the government from seizing property in New York that the Justice Department alleged had been acquired with the profits from a tax-fraud scheme in Russia. Prevezon was also being represented by a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. On June 9, 2016, Simpson and Veselnitskaya attended a hearing in downtown Manhattan. Afterward, Simpson headed to Penn Station where he caught a train back to D.C. Veselnitskaya went uptown to Trump Tower for her famous meeting with Don Jr., Manafort, and Kushner. Simpson and Veselnitskaya saw each other later that day at a dinner in D.C. organized by the law firm contracting Fusion in the case.

It seemed like a one-in-a-million coincidence and it was seized on by conspiracy theorists who claimed Fusion had set up the Trump Tower meeting, another piece of evidence in the growing deep-state conspiracy against Trump. “The Democrats colluded with Russian sources to develop the Steele dossier,” Nunes said during the House Intelligence Committee’s questioning of Robert Mueller. “And Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya colluded with the dossier’s key architect, Fusion GPS head Glenn Simpson.” The conspiracies were amplified by the president and repeated ad nauseam on Fox News and in the editorial pages of Simpson and Fritsch’s former paper. (One of Fusion’s biggest critics was John Solomon, whose stories on Ukraine are now being reviewed by his former employer, The Hill. “It’s been clear to us for a long time that John was being fed disinformation from Russia,” says Simpson.)

Simpson and Fritsch say the truth was much simpler: Fusion was a gun for hire in a small town. Its work for Prevezon was standard research. Sometimes Fusion’s client was a fraudulent upstart blood-testing company, other times it was Planned Parenthood. But the work was usually the same.

During the campaign, the Fusion office came to be known as a kind of “public reading room for journalists” trying to catch up on Trump’s dealings. Simpson and Fritsch had plenty of friends and former colleagues reporting on Trump and the former journalists felt increasingly obligated to sound the alarm. They shrug off any suggestion that it was improper for Clinton’s researchers to be briefing reporters. All sources have agendas. “Do you care where a story comes from if it’s true?” Fritsch says.

Simpson and Fritsch met with reporters and editors from many prominent news outlets, including Dean Baquet, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times. When, on October 31, 2016, the Times published a front-page story declaring that the FBI saw no ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Simpson and Fritsch were incensed. Shortly after the election, a half dozen reporters and editors at the Times asked Fusion for another briefing on its Trump research. At the meeting, Simpson told the Times journalists that they “fucking blew it,” calling the Halloween piece “an abortion of a story.” The reporters and editors defended their story, even if, as Crime in Progress documents, they would later serve as sources for a Times public editor column criticizing the paper’s coverage. Either way, Simpson and Fritsch no longer blame the Times for the Halloween story. “I actually thought the press did, on balance, a pretty good job,” says Fritsch.

Fusion continues to scrutinize Trump’s business dealings and Russia’s attempts to influence Western democracies. That work is funded by a nonprofit, the Democracy Integrity Project, which itself is funded by private donors. “Most of what we do is not really related to Donald Trump, national security, partisan politics,” Simpson says. “But we are in a specific moment in history when we do think this is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, that’s going on in the world.”

Fusion GPS Lights a Candle for the ‘Pee Tape’