The U.S. firm that used Russian sources to create a disinformation campaign to discredit presidential candidate Donald Trump has been revealed to have close ties to Russia.
Fusion GPS, the firm behind the widely debunked Trump–Russia dossier that was spread around U.S. government, media, and intelligence agencies, was being paid by Russian officials and working alongside a Russian lobbying operation.
“In the spring and summer of 2016, they [Fusion GPS] were receiving money indirectly from a senior Russian government official,” said William Browder, CEO and founder of Hermitage Capital Management, testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 27.
Browder noted that Fusion GPS lobbied against the 2012 Magnitsky Act on Russia’s behalf, at the same time that the Russian government was lobbying against the act.
The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in late 2012, sanctioned anyone who was determined responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or human rights violations of people promoting human rights in Russia or exposing the illegal activities of Russian government officials.
Browder’s company was at the center of the act, after it had filed complaints in Russia against government officials and mobsters who had committed $230 million in fraud against the company. The case resulted in the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had been representing the company.
Fusion GPS hired former British spy Christopher Steele, who runs the private Orbis Business Intelligence firm, to produce the 35-page dossier that contained unsubstantiated and bizarre accusations against Trump. Steele sourced most of the dossier’s findings to a senior figure in the Russian Foreign Ministry and to a former top-level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin. He later admitted he never spoke with the alleged sources directly, and had used intermediaries.
The dossier was allegedly funded by an unknown wealthy Republican donor in September 2015. Then an unknown Democrat client took over the funding in May 2016, after it appeared Trump would win the Republican nomination. Mother Jones magazine published a story on the dossier in October 2016, and BuzzFeed News published the dossier in full on Jan. 10, after which it was widely debunked.
Steele is now being sued for slander by Russian-born tech entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev and, according to The Washington Times, admitted in his court filings that “he never verified the charge information.”
Regardless, the dossier was used by media and government officials to build the foundations of the Trump–Russia conspiracy theory. It was also used by the FBI to frame a report about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and it may have been used by the Obama administration as grounds to open FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) requests to spy on members of the Trump team.
The information also follows closely on the heels of a connected scandal involving Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. Veselnitskaya was likewise working with a company tied to Fusion GPS and was likewise lobbying alongside the Russian government against the Magnitsky Act.
Trump Jr. met with Veselnitskaya after being told she could provide opposition research on Hillary Clinton. Yet, according to people present at the meeting, Veselnitskaya did not provide such information. It was later revealed that Veselnitskaya attended anti-Trump rallies and had ties to Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS and a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal. She also posted a photo in December 2015 from inside the office of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—who would later play a key role in spreading the Trump–Russia dossier.
When Veselnitskaya met with Trump Jr. and other members of the campaign, she was in the country without a valid visa. A year earlier, she had been granted a special immigration parole to enter the United States by the Obama administration’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch, but a request for extension was denied in January 2016.
The type of parole Lynch granted to Veselnitskaya is rarely given, and Trump took note of this during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on July 13, stating, “I was surprised to hear that. So she was here because of Lynch.”
Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, was set to testify before the Senate judiciary committee on July 19, but abruptly canceled. Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a statement saying Simpson was going to plead the Fifth Amendment, which under the U.S. Constitution allows people to choose not to provide information that is self-incriminating.
“Simpson’s attorney has asserted that his client will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to the subpoena,” Grassley and Feinstein said in a statement.
Simpson later requested to testify under the condition that the committee would not ask who hired Fusion GPS to write the dossier.
It’s unclear what information Simpson could provide that is self-incriminating, but it could tie to the fact that Fusion GPS failed to register as a foreign agent of Russia after the company had acted in the interest of the Russian government while lobbying against the Magnitsky Act.
Grassley noted this issue in a March 31 letter asking about the lack of DOJ enforcement for violations under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). He also noted claims from Browder that Fusion GPS had ties to the Kremlin.
Grassley wrote that in July 2016, Browder “filed a formal FARA complaint with the Justice Department regarding Fusion GPS, Rinat Akhmetshin, and their associates.” Akhmetshin is a Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence officer who Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting with Trump Jr. Browder alleged that Akhmetshin, Fusion GPS, and their associates all had failed to register as foreign agents under FARA.
In his letter, Grassley stated, “The issue is of particular concern to the Committee given that when Fusion GPS reportedly was acting as an unregistered agent of Russian interests, it appears to have been simultaneously overseeing the creation of the unsubstantiated dossier of allegations of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
He also noted that, given that Akhmetshin was working with Fusion GPS, “it is highly troubling that Fusion GPS appears to have been working with someone with ties to Russian intelligence—let alone someone alleged to have conducted political disinformation campaigns—as part of a pro-Russia lobbying effort while also simultaneously overseeing the creation of the Trump/Russia dossier.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited Browder’s testimony during a press briefing on July 27 and pointed out the odd silence on the issue among legacy news outlets, stating, “You guys love to talk about Russia. There’s been nonstop coverage, and the one day that there might have been a question on Russia, there wasn’t.”
She added, “Today, there was public testimony that further discredited the phony dossier that’s been the source of so much of the fake news and conspiracy theories, and we learned that the firm that produced it was also being paid by the Russians.”