Fusion GPS, a firm founded by former national journalists, has become a repeated flashpoint in the Donald Trump/Russia controversies.
The firm’s own involvement in the “Russia story” has become a focal point of debate. Fusion GPS was behind the infamous “dossier” of unverified and scandalous Trump allegations peddled by a British spy. More recently, a spokesman for the president’s legal team accused the firm of being associated with the Russian lawyer who held a controversial meeting with Donald Trump Jr. The lawyer implied that Trump Jr. was set up, although Fusion GPS says it didn’t know about the meeting.
The president’s son says he thought the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was going to provide the Trump campaign with information damaging to Hillary Clinton, but instead she focused on the Magnitsky Act, which slaps Russians with sanctions for human rights abuse and deals with Russian adoption issues.
Who’s behind Fusion GPS? One top senator wants the firm to register as a foreign agent, for Russia, and the firm is expected to be under the microscope at a July 19 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on that question. The firm denies needing to register.
On the right, the firm has become fodder for those seeking to counter criticism of Donald Trump and his son over Russia.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Firm Was Founded by Former Investigative Journalists for the Wall Street Journal
The founders of Fusion GPS cut their research teeth in investigative journalism for prominent American and British publications.
A Vanity Fair story on the Christopher Steele dossier reports that Fusion GPS was founded by Glenn Simpson, a former investigative reporter with The Wall Street Journal known for his “tenacity, meticulousness, cynicism…obsession with operational secrecy.”
The article reports that Simpson left journalism after nearly “14 years doing political and financial investigations” at the Journal and, in 2011, “along with two other former Journal reporters, launched Fusion GPS, in Washington, D.C.”
Simpson also started a company called SNS Global with Journal colleague Sue Schmidt, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her Washington Post stories into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to The Hill.
The Hill reported that, while at The Wall Street Journal for just over 13 years, Simpson focused on financial investigations: “He investigated ties between Riggs Bank and dictators like Augusto Pinochet of Chile and accounting fraud at failed insurance giant AIG. His work also helped the Journal win several libel cases brought in European court by groups suspected of financing Islamic terrorism.”
Simpson is the co-author of the book “Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics,” which alleged “widespread use of fraudulent absentee ballots and the buying of votes,” NPR reported.
On Linkedin, Simpson describes himself as the chief executive of Fusion GPS and a partner in SNS. He is also a fellow at the International Assessment & Strategy Center focusing on corruption and transnational crime. A graduate of George Washington University, he was also a reporter for Roll Call.
Fusion GPS’ extremely simple website reads only, “Fusion GPS is based in Washington, DC and provides premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services to corporations, law firms, and investors worldwide. We offer a cross-disciplinary approach with expertise in media, politics, regulation, national security, and global markets.”
One of Fusion GPS’ partners, Peter Fritsch, is a former Wall Street Journal senior editor who covered national security. He also served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Brussels/Northern Europe, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia. Thomas Catan was named as the other former reporter involved in Fusion GPS.
Fritsch wrote of the Washington D.C.- based firm: “While its coverage is global, Fusion GPS offers singular expertise in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of the topics the team has successfully covered in the region include: pre-transaction investigations; company and sector analysis; political and security risk assessments; money laundering; and asset recovery. Multi-lingual and on the ground researchers will uncover unique and reliable information for each project.”
At the time they married, Fritsch’ wife, Beatriz Hidalgo, was “the director of investor relations at Grupo Dina, a manufacturer of trucks and buses in Mexico City,” according to the wedding announcement.
Catan, who lists himself as a research consultant on LinkedIn, covered international economics and money in politics for the Wall Street Journal. He was also Spain correspondent for the newspaper and the Times of London, an energy, investigative, and Argentina correspondent for The Financial Times, and a reporter for Dow Jones.
2. Fusion GPS Was Behind the Dossier That Tried to Discredit Trump With Lurid Allegations Linked to Russia
Fusion GPS was behind the colorful and controversial Christopher Steele dossier that emerged as one of the most bizarre moments in an already bizarre presidential campaign. The dossier contained a listing of unverified, almost unspeakable allegations about President Donald Trump, and it emerged in news reports on January 10, 2017, just 10 days before Trump was inaugurated as president.
The company’s efforts were funded first by a Republican and, once Steele came on board and the primary was over, a Democrat. Neither donor’s name is known.
“Fusion GPS was paid by a Democratic ally of Hillary Clinton’s to conduct the research,” reports The Daily Caller.
Steele is a former British spy who wrote the unverified report on Donald Trump’s alleged activities and connections in Russia. A former intelligence officer who was based in Russia in the 1990s, Steele now runs an intelligence firm in London. The dossier contained lurid allegations involving Trump’s supposed activities in Russia that are all unverified and hotly contested. Steele has acknowledged in a defamation case in England that information in one of his memos “needed to be analyzed and further investigated/verified.” All the same, he shared the dossier with the FBI and, reports CNN, the Justice Department relied on parts of it to obtain a FISA warrant to “to conduct surveillance on Trump associate Carter Page.”
President Trump has decried the dossier as false and a hoax. CNN reported that President Barack Obama was briefed on the Steele dossier because of concerns that the allegations in it could open up Trump to blackmail; the Russian government has denied the dossier’s accuracy. The 35-page dossier was written by Steele based on memos he compiled from June through December 2016.
However, Fusion GPS’ research into Trump was initially funded by a Republican.
Before the Steele dossier came into play, according to Vanity Fair, Simpson was hired “to compile an opposition-research dossier on Donald Trump.” Although Simpson wouldn’t say who funded that quest, Vanity Fair alleges through a friend of his that it was a “never Trump Republican.”
Vanity Fair reports that this donor’s interest dried up once Trump won the nomination, but Simpson had “grown deeply concerned by the prospect of a Trump presidency.” He found Democratic donors to fund the effort’s continuance, and eventually subcontracted with Steele to look into Trump’s ties to Russia for between $12,000 to $15,000 a month, according to Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair dubs Simpson the “co-conspirator and a shrewd facilitator” for Steele and the information the former British spy collected.
According to the BBC, “the opposition research firm that commissioned the report had worked first for an anti-Trump Super Pac – political action committee – during the Republican primaries. Then during the general election, it was funded by an anonymous Democratic Party supporter.” The BBC and other British news outlets had initially reported that the PAC supported Jeb Bush’s campaign, but Bush has adamantly denied having anything to do with the dossier or Steele, and the BBC amended its reports.
The New York Times says Fusion GPS’ Steele effort was funded by “Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton” whose identities are not clear.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump critic, asked ousted FBI Director James Comey about Fusion GPS and what Graham called “the Russian intelligence apparatus.” The Federalist described their Q and A this way:
Graham: Are you familiar with Fusion?
Comey: I know the name.
Graham: Are they part of the Russian intelligence apparatus?
Comey: I can’t say.
Graham: Do you agree with me that if Fusion was involved in preparing a dossier against Donald Trump, that would be interfering in our election by the Russians?
Comey: I don’t want to say.
According to The New York Post, “The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month threatened to subpoena the firm, Fusion GPS, after it refused to answer questions and provide records…” The Post story dubbed Fusion GPS a “secretive Washington firm.”
The Post, in a story written by the author of a book called “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington,” quoted anonymous Congressional sources as accusing the firm of being “an opposition-research group for Democrats, and the founders, who are more political activists than journalists, have a pro-Hillary Clinton, anti-Trump agenda.” This has become the mantra by many on the right, but not everyone agrees with it, and the firm has also worked for Republicans.
In a June 7, 2017 letter to Simpson and Fusion GPS, U.S. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said that the commission had requested “information about Fusion GPS’ activities related to the dossier compiled by Mr. Christopher Steele.” Specifically, the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to know about “the clients who hired and paid Fusion and the factual details of those arrangements.”
The letter noted to Simpson: “You refused to provide any information whatsoever, claiming that the Committee’s request ‘calls for information and documents protected by the First Amendment right, attorney-client privilege, attorney work product, and contractual rights (e.g. confidentiality agreements) of Fusion and/or its clients.’” The letter alleges the lawyer for Simpson provided “minimal …explanations” and “refused to engage in a meaningful dialogue.” Grassley wrote that the committee would “begin consideration of compulsory process under its rules” if the firm continued to voluntarily refuse.
3. A U.S. Senator Has Accused Fusion GPS of Working as an Unregistered Agent for Russia
The Magnitsky Act figures in a lot of this story; obscure to many Americans, it was a Russian priority to defeat. Fusion GPS’ efforts to help defeat the act led one top Republican senator, Grassley, of Iowa, to accuse the firm of acting as an agent for Russia. Fusion GPS has denied the allegation.
It’s also the topic that Trump Jr. says the Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, fixated on in their meeting, instead of the Clinton dirt he thought they’d be getting.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Grassley wrote a letter to the U.S. Justice Department in March 2017 that alleged that “Fusion GPS, which was also involved in the creation of the unsubstantiated dossier alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, was involved in the pro-Russia campaign to kill the Global Magnitsky Act around the same time.”
The Magnitsky Act was “named for a lawyer who suspiciously died in Russian custody after accusing Russian government officials and members of organized crime of using corporate identity theft against Hermitage Capital Management to fraudulently obtain and launder $230 million, some of which allegedly ended up in U.S. real estate projects. The Magnitsky Act imposed sanctions against those involved as well as other Russians designated as human rights abusers,” the Grassley statement says.
Hermitage’s CEO was a man named William Browder.
Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr., is named in a complaint filed by Browder with the Justice Department as “Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer for Prevezon.” Prevezon Holdings Limited, is defined as Russian owned Cyprus registered company attempting to defeat the Magnitsky Act. According to the Browder complaint, Prevezon is “controlled/directed/influenced by the Russian Government in respect of the lobbying activity.” Trump Jr.’s own emails, which he dumped on Twitter July 11, allege he was told that Veselnitskaya was a government lawyer.
According to the Daily Beast, Browder will brief the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid July about “the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s ties to the Russian government—including to former top members of the GRU and the FSB, two of the Kremlin’s main intelligence agencies.” Veselnitskaya has denied being an agent of the Russian government.
The Browder complaint further describes Veselnitskaya by saying she “is the lawyer to Prevezon and the Katsyv family,” adding that she “played a key role in organizing screenings of the film intended to rewrite the history of Sergei Magnitsky.” She also attended a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on U.S. policy towards Putin’s Russia, the complaint says. It also says that she then filed a report with Congress accusing the Magnitsky Act of being “based on lies.”
The complaint alleges that Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS “has been hired by Prevezon to lobby for the anti-Magnitsky campaign.” The complaint says that Vladimir Putin made it his “primary foreign policy objective” to get the Magnitsky Act defeated and adds that Prevezon is owned by a man named Denis Katsyv.
According to a news release from Grassley, “Fusion GPS was reportedly tasked with generating negative press coverage of Browder and Hermitage.” Grassley alleged that Fusion GPS should have “registered as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).” He alleged to the Justice Department that “Fusion GPS reportedly ‘dug up dirt’ on Mr. Browder’s property and finances, and attempted to generate negative stories about Mr. Browder and Hermitage in the media, shopping stories to a number of reporters.”
Grassley also alleged that Fusion GPS was working with Rinat Akhmetshin, “a Russian immigrant to the U.S. who has admitted having been a ‘Soviet counterintelligence officer.'” Grassley wrote the Justice Department: “Fusion GPS is the company behind the creation of the unsubstantiated dossier alleging a conspiracy between President Trump and Russia. 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.”
Who is Katsyv?
A law firm named BakerHostetler represented Katsyv, who “owns a company that the Justice Department has accused of laundering money from a tax fraud that Magnitsky uncovered,” according to Politico.
According to The Washington Post, Denis’ father “Pyotr Katsyv, was vice premier and minister of transport of Moscow region from 2004 to 2012. Katsyv’s deputy minister was Alexander Mitusov, Veselnitskaya’s ex husband.”
The Magnitsky Act in the U.S. Congress was fought by a Russian lobbying effort because it, Politico reported, “authorizes the president to freeze assets and deny visas to foreign officials responsible for corruption and human rights violations.”
A Politico story from December 2016 reported that “BakerHostetler hired a private research firm known as Fusion GPS led by Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. (The firm also discussed information with journalists about Trump and his associates’ ties to Russia.)”
According to The Washington Post, Fusion GPS “did work on a lawsuit that involved Veselnitskaya for more than two years.” The Post reports that “Fusion GPS has said that it was working for the law firm BakerHostetler, which was representing Prevezon, a Russian holding company based in Cyprus, in its defense against Justice Department allegations that Prevezon laundered money stolen in the fraud Magnitsky uncovered.” There’s no known evidence that the Fusion GPS dossier work and this was connected, according to The Post.
4. The Firm Was Behind a Report That Discredited Planned Parenthood Sting Videos & Worked for a Sheik Who Once Burned the American Flag
Fusion GPS has also found itself a favorite target of conservatives recently because of its work discrediting undercover videos designed to make Planned Parenthood look bad. Fusion GPS was hired to research the videos.
According to Politico, a report from Fusion GPS “found that the sting videos targeting its tissue donation practices contain intentionally deceptive edits, missing footage and inaccurately transcribed conversations.”
The firm also engendered controversy by researching a Mitt Romney donor.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the firm helped research Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot who “has become the target of a smear campaign since it was disclosed earlier this year that he had donated $1 million to a super PAC supporting” Mitt Romney. According to the newspaper, “President Obama’s campaign website teed him up in April as one of eight ‘less than reputable’ Romney donors and a ‘bitter foe of the gay rights movement.'”
According to The Wall Street Journal, a former Democratic staffer who sought VanderSloot’s divorce records traced back to Fusion GPS. In an email to the newspaper, Fusion GPS founder Simpson called VanderSloot a “legitimate” target because of “his record on gay issues” but wouldn’t say who was paying his firm for the research.
In a court filing in a defamation case filed by VanderSloot against others, Simpson’s attorneys sought to quash a subpoena against him. The filing says “it was only after Mr. VanderSloot’s role as National Co-Finance Chair of Mr. Romney’s campaign became public that Fusion GPS conducted some research about Mr. VanderSloot… As part of that research, Mr. Simpson instructed an intern for Fusion GPS to request any publicly available Idaho state court documents involving Mr. VanderSloot. The intern made two phone calls to the court in Idaho and Fusion GPS received public court files on four court proceedings.”
The court filing says that Fusion GPS provides research for a wide variety of clients, including those who want the company to “perform due diligence on businesses in which they are considering investing.” The company also conducts background information on political candidates or other public figures as well as on policy issues. The filing expresses concern that clients could be outed. The law firm representing Simpson: BakerHostetler, the firm that represented Denis Katsyv.
Simpson and his other firm, SNS Global, represented a controversial Sheik who once burned the American flag.
In 2009, the Hill reported that Simpson “filed a lobbying registration early last month under his firm, SNS Global, to investigate the emirate of Ras al Khaimah (RAK). Simpson’s work is on behalf of Sheik Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, who believes Iran is using the emirate, which his father rules, to circumvent tough international trade sanctions.”
According to The Hill, Simpson said he planned to conduct research for the Sheik, not lobbying. The Hill reported at the time that SNS was also “a subcontractor to California Strategies.”
SNS registered to lobby for California Strategies with the U.S. Senate in previous years. According to McClatchy, California Strategies’ “four founding partners had … close ties to then-Gov. Pete Wilson. California Strategies founder Bob White had worked for Wilson for three decades.”
California Strategies “registered as a foreign agent for Sheik Khalid in October 2008, about three weeks before Obama was elected,” according to the Sacramento Bee, which reported that “two California Strategies partners, one associate and one spouse gave a combined $158,000 to the committee planning Obama’s inaugural festivities.” One of the firm’s partners “supported Hillary Clinton in the primary and chaired an independent expenditure committee that ran negative ads against Obama,” The Sacramento Bee reported.
The Sheik also hired Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and Clinton White House veteran who, according to The Washington Post, “orchestrated leaks about prosecutor Kenneth Starr from the Clinton White House and went on to serve as Gore’s press secretary.”
The Sheik was described as “a prince from the United Arab Emirates known for burning an American flag to protest the invasion of Iraq” by The New York Times. The prince was later ousted from his country’s succession because he was deemed too sympathetic to women’s rights.
The Washington Post notes that the Fusion GPS firm “has done research for both Republicans and Democrats alike.”
5. Trump’s Lawyer Has Implied That the Meeting With the Russian Lawyer, Veselnitskaya, Was a Set Up but Fusion GPS Denies Knowing About It
Trump’s team sought to discredit the meeting controversy by implying that Trump Jr. might have been set up.
“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the legal team of President Donald Trump.
“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the President and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” he said. “These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner.”
Fusion GPS responded in a statement: “Fusion GPS learned about this meeting from news reports and had no prior knowledge of it. Any claim that Fusion GPS arranged or facilitated this meeting in any way is false.”
For his part, Trump Jr. said of the meeting to the New York Times: “After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton.”
“Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information,” Donald Trump, Jr., said, the Times reported.
Trump Jr. released a series of emails he had with Rob Goldstone, a music producer, arranging the meeting. On June 3, in a key exchange, Goldstone wrote:
Good morning. Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin. What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly? I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.
Trump Jr. responded that, if the account was accurate, “I love it.”
You can read the emails in full here: