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‘Sex is probably the one thing you can’t blackmail Donald Trump over’: Steele dossier producer discusses Russia’s — and Trump’s — corruption

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For Wednesday’s “Trump, Inc.” episode, we spoke to a person who has a lot to say about business corruption and Russian influence in the U.S. He’s also become a central figure in the very story he’s been researching for years. He’s Glenn Simpson.

Simpson first came to these issues as an investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal. Then in 2010, he co-founded Fusion GPS, a research firm. During the 2016 campaign, he began to research Donald Trump for two clients: first for a Republican opposed to Trump and then for a lawyer for Democrats.

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Fusion is the research firm most famous — or infamous — for hiring Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the so-called Steele dossier.

Simpson is now the author, with Peter Fritsch, of the new book, “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein: So Glenn, let’s get right to it. I think it’s fair to say that your research on the 2016 campaign suggested very strongly that Trump was or is financially tied to Russia. Is that a fair summary?

Glenn Simpson: We broaden it to the former Soviet Union, but yes.

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Bernstein: You started in 2015, right?

Simpson: September 2015.

Bernstein: Researching Trump?

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Simpson: That’s right. For the Republicans.

Bernstein: The same time as, I think, they started working on the Trump Tower Moscow, though none of us knew it at the time.

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Simpson: Right.

Bernstein: So you started researching and you developed a body of knowledge over the next nine months or so. When you got to the end of that research, what was your understanding of what the business was?

Simpson: It did take a long time to develop a coherent kind of theory of the case. What we ultimately concluded — and still believe today — is that Donald Trump figured out at some point in his long and controversial business career that there was all of this money pouring out of the former Soviet Union, much of it stolen or hot or of unknown origin, and it needed a place to go. And that he could resuscitate his own business empire by going after that money. And that, you know, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars did come out of that part of the world and into Donald Trump’s businesses.

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Bernstein: So what were the ways that that happened?

Simpson: I mean, mostly it was individuals acquiring individual properties. There were other projects — like the Trump SoHo — where he was actually in business with people from that part of the world and they were bringing even larger sums of money in as equity for investment in the underlying property.

Bernstein: So one of the things that we’ve found in investigating his business — and also it’s really sort of obvious in the White House — there isn’t a lot of vetting going on. And I’m wondering if you feel like he was just taking this because it was coming in. Or was he taking it because he understood that people from the former Soviet Union wanted those ties for their own reasons?

Simpson: I think willful blindness is probably the right term for this. And there was ample reason to suspect that many of these people were involved in criminal activity or corruption of some sort. It went on for much too long for it to simply be a sort of lapse in due diligence.

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Bernstein: In the last three years, what have we learned that is either confirmed, or refuted, or somehow changed in your understanding of Trump and business dealings with the former Soviet Union?

Simpson: I mean, most simply that he is in business with a lot of people who are in organized crime and that he — in some cases — clearly knew that. And I’d say that’s the broadest observation you can make about it.

Bernstein: You’re talking about something we’ve learned in the last three years?

Simpson: Actually, some of it dates back before that. I mean, the start of our inquiry was really just into his business and whether he was a good businessman, whether he was as rich as he said he was. Then one of the first things we came across was Felix Sater. Frankly, it was no great investigative coup. I just was reading old New York Times clips.

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And there was an article about this guy with this criminal past who appeared to be close to Donald Trump. And that set me off looking into court records to see what else I could find out about [Sater]. And eventually it became clear that this guy was indeed really close to Trump. His family is Jewish, but they’re from Russia. He immigrated to the United States as a child. His father had a criminal history, seemed to be involved in some sort of organized crime activity. So that was the beginning. That was the first dot in what turned out to be a long dot connecting exercise.

Bernstein: So let’s just back up one second. For people who don’t know or really understand what Fusion GPS is, what is it?

Simpson: I left The Wall Street Journal in 2009. I had a really great job as a free-range investigative reporter, and I tended to cover financial crime, international organized crime. But the business was changing, the newspaper was changing. It had been acquired by News Corp. And I decided it was time to try something else. And I thought about what I really loved about journalism. And the thing that stayed with me over the years and never got old was the reporting aspect of digging into stuff and trying to figure out what was going on. So I decided to try to set up a business where I could continue to do that.

We set up Fusion in 2010 and began marketing our services as acquirers of reliable information for people who need information to make decisions — figure out why they’re not winning in a contract competition, to help them manage a complex piece of litigation. And, as it turned out, it’s a useful service that is in demand and is economical for a lot of clients, given the other alternatives, like using a paralegal or someone else to collect documents. I mean, you know, we collect documents, that’s essentially what we do for the most part.

Bernstein: How do you sort of square the idea of doing research for hire with the journalistic practice that you’re carrying out?

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Simpson: Well obviously a newspaper has a special status in our society as a sort of independent entity and struggles to be fair and impartial. And obviously, if you’re working for a private company, the relationship is different. However, the service that we sell is neutral in the sense that what we promise people is that we will acquire the information they need to make a decision.

We don’t sell outcomes. We gather information. And part of the pitch when we talked to a new client is: Please don’t tell us what you think is happening or what you want to try to prove or any of that. Let us just hoover up all the information and we’ll tell you what we think is happening.

Bernstein: So you say in your book — and you’ve talked about — how most of your clients are litigation clients. How did you end up with a Trump assignment?

Simpson: Well, I spent most of my adult life in Washington, much of it covering politics, political corruption campaigns and elections. So I know a lot of people in that world on both sides. So in 2012 when the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, some people on the other side asked us to look into his business career — how much taxes he paid, whether he shipped jobs overseas, that sort of thing. And we were able to produce a lot of interesting, reliable material that was in the public domain but not easy to find.

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In 2015, along comes another tycoon who wants to be the Republican nominee for president. And we thought, well, you know, we did this four years ago. It was a lot of fun. Let’s see if someone wants us to do it again. In this case we thought of doing it in the Republican primaries instead of in the general election. So the natural client would be someone on the Republican side who wanted to stop Donald Trump.

Bernstein: And that was your client?

Simpson: That was, yeah. We reached out to a Republican friend of mine and I said, “Hey, would you guys be interested in procuring some research on Donald Trump’s business career? You know, his lawsuit, how he treats his employees, his multiple bankruptcies,” that sort of thing.

Bernstein: At that time, did you have an idea where the research would take you?

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Simpson: Absolutely none. It was, I mean, the way we structure our agreements with most clients is that it’s a 30-day agreement.

You did not have to sign a long-term contract and basically you get to taste the cooking and if you like it you can keep going. So it was originally just a 30-day assignment to write up, you know, what we could find on his business career and an overall assessment. It was an amazing sort of first month.

I had never, ever seen so many lawsuits involving one person in my life. There was just so much litigation. It was really unbelievable. But in general, the litigation was over his lousy business practices. I mean, he’s just a dishonest person. He doesn’t pay his vendors. He goes bankrupt repeatedly. He misstates the financial condition of his properties. And in the beginning it was just a picture of a guy who was not a reliable person and not a good businessman.

Bernstein: Now you had done — as a journalist — a number of stories on Paul Manafort. Long before he went to work for Trump.

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Simpson: So when Peter [Fritsch] and I worked together in the Brussels bureau of The Wall Street Journal — from about 2005 to 2008 — what was fresh and new in Europe at the time was Russian organized crime and kleptocracy and the transition of the former Soviet Union to market economies.

A lot of criminal groups were sort of seeping eastward or moving up in their own countries and getting in legal trouble, having problems with Western law enforcement, needing influence in the West. And one of the first people to recognize that this was a booming market for his talents was Paul Manafort. And so he began doing political consulting in Ukraine working for Russian oligarchs. And part of that work was in fact exercising influence on their behalf in Washington.

Bernstein: And then it’s the spring of 2016 and you’ve been investigating Trump’s business for some time now, and you’re beginning to understand these connections between people from the former Soviet Union, and then Paul Manafort shows up first as [Trump’s] convention wrangler and then eventually as his campaign manager. What were you thinking then?

Simpson: Holy shit, what is going on here?

Bernstein: In the book, you talk about querying the federal legal case database in a way that it would spit out evidence requests from foreign courts. What did you find?

Simpson: So we found a request from the Cayman Islands — on behalf of a shell company — for evidence against Paul Manafort and his partners: Rick Davis and Rick Gates. And it laid out in about 20 pages what appeared to be an incredible sort of litany of criminal acts and thievery.

Manafort had promised this mysterious, unidentified investor that he was gonna invest in all these businesses in Ukraine, and according to the filing, instead, they just sort of walked off with the money. We couldn’t tell originally who this mysterious party was, but by cross-referencing the names of the shell companies that was in the litigation with securities filings from around the world, it became clear that it was Oleg Deripaska. Who is, like, [President Vladimir] Putin’s favorite oligarch.

Bernstein: So Putin’s favorite oligarch is suing the incoming Trump campaign manager.

Simpson: Exactly. So here we are with all of these files that we’ve accumulated over almost a decade about what a crook this guy is. Again, it wasn’t like we said, “Oh, this must be the Kremlin’s agent who’s being inserted in the Trump campaign.” It was like, “Wow, you know, yet another crook has come to the aid of Donald Trump.”

Bernstein: He wasn’t a convicted crook at that time, although now he is.

Simpson: Correct. So I can use the term crook freely.

So yeah, so he walks on the stage. And again, there’s this accumulation of episodes and characters, and you begin to recognize patterns. The pattern in this case was: a lot of dodgy folks with connections to the former Soviet Union accumulating around Donald Trump.

Bernstein: So is this when you decided to hire Christopher Steele.

Simpson: It’s close to it. I mean, this episode with the court filing and everything is in March. At that time, Trump is locking up the Republican nomination and we’re contemplating that our client is gonna probably fire us. So we’re trying to decide what to do and we think — knowing what we now know about Trump — we decide that we should work for the other side. Because we’ve got to stop this guy, because he’s not fit to be president.

And there’s nothing really to do with Russia at this point. It has to do with the fact that everyone he’s in business with seems to be, you know, a criminal. He has a terrible business history. He’s an obvious liar. Just not fit to be, you know, mayor, not to mention president of the United States.

So that’s when we decided that we were going to explore working for the Democrats. And so that transition occurs between April and May. And as we do that transition — and we realize that we’re going to have funding to keep going with a lot of the lines of our original inquiries — that’s when we start thinking about hiring [Steele’s private intelligence firm] Orbis to do some looking around in Russia.

I should add parenthetically that even then we’re not totally focused on Russia, and we’re certainly not putting together some sort of conspiracy theory about what Russia is up to. We hired people to look for information in numerous other countries, because Donald Trump’s business career had globalized in this last phase of his career.

Bernstein: But that was a big turn for you because you had basically specialized in document-based research and you are hiring someone to sort of gather intelligence.

Simpson: Right. So, you know, as Peter likes to put it, there’s no FOIA law in Russia. Or if there is, it’s not any good and —

Bernstein: So that was the way to find out about business? That’s what you thought you were going to look for?

Simpson: So that was the kind of thing that — I thought — [Steele] could look into.

Bernstein: And he comes back right away with this first memo and it says there is a well-developed plan to make connections with Donald Trump on the part of the Kremlin.

Simpson: Right.

Bernstein: What are you thinking?

Simpson: Well, so again, in the developing picture here, other things are also happening around this same exact time. I think before the report comes in, we find out that there’s a hack at the Democratic National Committee, and that the FBI suspects the Russians did it. The Russian intelligence services.

So you might put [Steele’s] report aside as, you know, just too wild to be believed if the DNC hadn’t just been hacked by the Russian intelligence services. But in those circumstances — and because [Steele] is such an expert on Russia and an experienced hand — we had to take it seriously.

And so we began to shift a lot of our research efforts toward figuring out what was really going on here. And ideally exposing it.

Bernstein: One of the things, I think, that people have reacted to since the release of the dossiers [is the idea that] Putin has some big thing on Trump’s business. And I mean, we know a lot more. We know, for example, that they were secretly negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow and asking the Kremlin for favors during the presidential campaign. But I don’t think that we understand, like: Is there some incredibly bad business deal gone wrong or is there something else that Putin has that we should be looking for that’s still out there? What do you think?

Simpson: I think we definitely don’t know the whole story. I think that we can make a couple of observations. You know, one of the big ones is what you referred to, which is Trump was negotiating a secret business deal to do a development in Russia while running for president, and he hid that fact from the American people. That is kompromat. That’s the definition of kompromat. Kompromat is not sexual blackmail. It’s a shared secret. Any shared secret that is embarrassing, incriminating. So if I know something about you — and you know I know — then I got kompromat on you. So —

Bernstein: And that’s a Russian term, kompromat.

Simpson: Correct.

Bernstein: And it’s used all the time in Russian politics.

Simpson: All the time. So [Steele’s] primary concern was that the Russians had kompromat on Trump. And you know, he’s clearly right. They did have kompromat on Trump. We didn’t know what it was, or what all of it was. But this was one of the possibilities. It’s in the original early memos. Whether there’s more, and whether it also involves money, we don’t know. He’s gone to great lengths to prevent people from finding out what else there might be there. I’ll add parenthetically that, you know, Peter and I sort of saw things a little differently than [Steele] and Orbis with regard to the famous pee tape, which was, you know, it seemed just to be unprovable.

And from my perspective, sex is probably the one thing you can’t blackmail Donald Trump over. ‘Cause he seems to want everyone to know that he engages in lots of sex. So, you know, I think [Steele’s] training as an intelligence professional caused him to focus more on that than we did.

Bernstein: You have said that this — what’s now known as the dossier — this collection of memos was raw intelligence and that people have misunderstood it. In fact, in the book, you outline some pretty colorful language that was used when it was released. You were not happy.

Simpson: Absolutely not.

Bernstein: Why?

Simpson: Well, so you know, Peter and I worked at The Wall Street Journal most of our careers, and it was a very exacting place. And you know, you would do so much reporting that would end up on the cutting room floor before you publish anything. And when we deliver our work to clients, it is like a term paper. It’s got footnotes, it’s got supporting documentation.

And things like this, they go into the research, but they’re not intended to be read by anyone, including our clients sometimes. It was professionally horrifying. It was also reckless, we think, because it seemed as if very little consideration was given to the possibility that — if this document was true — whether they were going to get some people killed.

Bernstein: Did it?

Simpson: Not that we know of.

Bernstein: Now that it has gotten out in the world, it’s had a very big effect on the American psyche. On maybe everything that’s happened in the Trump administration. How do you feel about having commissioned those documents?

Simpson: Peter and I have no real regrets. As we’ve described it, it was an act of citizenship. Much of the stuff that triggered the controversy we did when we didn’t even have a client. We weren’t being paid. Obviously there were things that could’ve gone differently.

I don’t think the dossier needed to be published for this to be addressed. I think that the Russia scandal might’ve happened anyway, because we made sure that Sen. [John] McCain and other people were aware of this information. So parts of history may have turned out differently.

It is obviously been unpleasant for us as a company, for our families. Security concerns, legal bills.

Bernstein: So what has it been like for you? This constant churn on Fox News, you’ve been sued by oligarchs, you were sued at one point by Michael Cohen.

Simpson: I kind of sometimes manage it, I could compare it to managing — a skin condition or something.

Bernstein: Really?

Simpson: It’s really unpleasant at first to be slandered every day and have the president tweeting about you and assaulting your friends and cherished colleagues and things like that. I mean, it’s obviously really rude, but you gotta live your life and you know, day in and day out, things are OK.

Bernstein: Have there been points when you’ve been actually afraid?

Simpson: So when the question is asked, like, “Do you feel like you’re in danger?” The underlying premise is: from the Russians. Russians generally don’t whack Westerners, who don’t travel to Russia. But we feel that the domestic, you know, conspiracy theory crowd is a real threat. And the FBI and the Washington police have been very responsive. We have definitely gotten threats. You know, Cesar Sayoc had my name on his computer.

Bernstein: That’s the CNN bomber.

Simpson: The shoebox bomber. But lots of other people were in there too.

Bernstein: Fiona Hill in her testimony — in her deposition on, like, Page 394 — made this comment about how Russia has used corruption in former Soviet satellite states, like Moldova and Armenia and Georgia, to infiltrate their systems and disrupt them for its own ends. And she said it’s a failure of the imagination for us not to believe that that is what Russia is doing here.

Simpson: Amen.

Bernstein: We obviously we have become a country where there is a lot of corruption in the last three years. And I’m wondering if you agree with her that that’s a particular vector, given your history of investigating all of this?

Simpson: I really do. And, you know, her book is terrific. You know, she really knows Putin well. And among Russia watchers, this analysis is widely accepted, which is that spreading corruption is a Russian government foreign policy.

Bernstein: So let’s just sort of keep thinking about that, because obviously this is in the context of — just recently from the White House — the president’s acting chief of staff announced that the president was going to be holding the G7 summit at his own hotel. Now, they’re not doing that.

However, as you know, when you’re doing your first corruption stories, that is the most basic: some government official gave their own business a contract.

To me, that is sort of a symbol of how commonplace this kind of transactional government has become.

Simpson: Well I don’t think there’s any question: Broadly, kleptocracy is spreading in the West. And this was actually the theme of the coverage that we did in the 2000s, which was the question of whether kleptocracy would come westward over time. And I think there’s no question that it has.

Bernstein: In the last three years, what do you feel that you’ve learned that’s new or that surprised you since the so-called dossier?

Simpson: I think I fault myself for not recognizing earlier — first of all — the scale of foreign money that has flowed into his companies and the American real estate industry in general. I covered a lot of money laundering cases at The Wall Street Journal. Money laundering in real estate? I don’t think I ever wrote much about it. So I was really stunned to see how bad of a problem it is.

We continue to look at his business empire and try to understand how it worked. And some of the things that we learned are things that you have covered, such as the hyping of properties and the misleading of customers, and the dodgy ways that these projects get financed, which really kind of resembles a Ponzi scheme. And I didn’t know that about Trump and his empire when we got into this.

Bernstein: You wrote in your book: “The truth was that legal work had little resemblance to the public interest investigative journalism that Fusion partners had practiced for so much of their careers, and from which they derive their own self-image as basically good guys doing good things. They’d left that world behind years ago.” Why did you write that?

Simpson: Well, I think it’s important to be candid and to make clear that we’re not posing as journalists. We use methods from journalism, but we’re consultants. And, among other things, that just subjects you to a different viewpoint of other people. They view you differently as a hired gun.

So whether or not you are really careful to operate ethically and appropriately — which we do — you’re not going to be viewed the same way as a journalist. Journalists have a white hat on pretty much, and that’s how they’re viewed. And so regardless of how well we conduct ourselves, we are treated differently. People question our motives. And they accuse us of spinning things or conjuring things for the benefit of clients. It’s actually not true. We don’t do that. But I get why that perception is out there among some people.

Bernstein: We have talked a lot on this show — particularly recently — about disinformation campaigns. Ilya [Marritz] was in Ukraine talking about the whole black ledger disinformation campaign, where Rudy Giuliani and his associates are trying to somehow suggest that the evidence that resulted in the conviction of Paul Manafort in two jurisdictions was tainted. But, for a sort of casually looking public, it seems like it’s easy to get confused between that kind of thing and what you’re doing. And I’m wondering how you navigate that.

Simpson: It’s a tough question to answer. I think in the short run, disinformation works. Over time, however, people get wise. Sort of like Bill Barr’s rollout of the Mueller report — he told us what was in it and then made us wait a month to actually see whether that was true so that his version would sink in. That only works once, right? If he does that again, no one’s going to fall for it.

Similarly, this whole sort of long parade of lies about everything is wearing out and people are less and less confused over who is telling the truth. So in our work, we still believe that the truth ultimately will out and that the facts really do matter. And that we need to document our work. We need to do it in a neutral way, and that ultimately that will prevail in a free society. I think we should all be a little concerned about how much longer we live in a free society. But for now, the First Amendment is still in effect.

Bernstein: How does it feel to be speaking?

Simpson: Uh … not that great. I just decided not to — I was never a big fan of giving interviews after, you know, I did it a lot when I was younger —

Bernstein: I’m surprised to hear you say that, I mean, you wrote a book because you wanted to tell your side of the story.

Simpson: We like to — I like to — get out our side of the story. I just, I guess I just don’t — the whole process is — I’d rather be doing work. My own work.

Bernstein: Glenn Simpson, thank you so much.

Simpson: Thanks, Andrea.

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