A lot will be written in the next few days about the Senate testimony of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, released by Senator Dianne Feinstein this week, as well as newly reviewed texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which suggest the latter two may have been involved in leaking Bureau information.
Although there has been a big clamor on Tuesday (9 January) over the suggestion – derived from the Simpson testimony – that the FBI had a source inside the Trump campaign in 2016, I don’t think that’s the story. That’s basically because I don’t think it’s true.
Simpson never asserts it explicitly, for one thing. But there’s also simply a better explanation for why FBI agents reportedly told Christopher Steele in September 2016 that they had a separate source giving them information that seemed to come from within the campaign.
Ken Dilanian of NBC has the explanation that makes the most sense. When FBI personnel were telling Steele they had a separate source impelling them to probe links between Trump personnel and Russians, they were referring to the information about George Papadopoulos.
They reportedly got the specific “goose” on Papadopoulos – the eye-opener, at least according to the latest narrative – in late July, from an Australian diplomatic source. Dilanian says he has two sources confirming that that is what Steele would have been talking about, when he conveyed to Glenn Simpson that he was hearing about this separate source from the FBI.
A source close to Fusion GPS tells me there was no walk-in source — that was a mischaracterization by Simpson of the Australian diplomat tip about Papadopoulis.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) January 9, 2018
A second source confirms: Steele was not told about a walk-in source. That was a mistake. He was referring to Papadopoulos, via the Australian diplomat.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) January 9, 2018
Setting aside the propriety of the FBI agents telling Steele that sort of thing, this tracks, and doesn’t introduce anything new that we need to bother making sense of.
Of greater interest is the emerging picture of information-theme manipulation just before the 2016 election. I’m not going spend much time on Strzok and Page, because that point is being well developed elsewhere.
The Strzok and Page act
John Solomon’s downpayment on it at The Hill (link above) does excellent service. He addresses a text from 24 October 2016 in which Strzok appears to wonder if he should pretend to “find” a new article in the Wall Street Journal so he can alert “the team” (FBI personnel, apparently) to it. The implication is that he knew about the article before it was published. The article itself was about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Strzok and Page also have an exchange around 3 November in which Page speaks of a Washington Post article that Strzok calls “anti-Bu” (i.e., Bureau), and Page says FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki had concerns about, because the timeline it recounted was “too specific.” That seems to mean the timeline too clearly showed that someone in the FBI was leaking information.
Page went on to say the following:
Page texted she had seen the article. “Makes me feel WAY less bad about throwing him under the bus to the forthcoming CF article,” she texted. Congressional investigators are still trying to determine what the “CF article” reference means and who the agents thought they were trying to throw “under the bus.”
The most likely meaning of “CF” would be Clinton Foundation, given that the FBI’s renewed interest in both the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s emails was an explosive issue just before the election.
The Fusion theme campaign
Strzok and Page appear to focus on the decisions being made about the Clinton-related investigations in the FBI. The Glenn Simpson testimony to the Senate, from August 2017, sheds more light on the Russia side of things.
And in hindsight, it sheds a lot of light. Something important to keep in mind, in considering both of these packages of information – Strzok-Page and Simpson – is that the events we are seeing the emerging narrative of were happening at exactly the same time. Strzok and Page were exchanging their texts about media stories between 24 October and early November 2016. Glenn Simpson makes reference to a media push of Fusion’s dossier-themed narrative in the same period.
All I’m going to introduce in this post is one passage from Simpson’s 300-plus pages of testimony, which starts with the resumption of examination at 4:30 PM on 22 August 2017, on page 227 of the transcript (top link).
It’s necessary to set the stage just a bit for this passage. Earlier, on page 218, Simpson is answering questions on whether he or Steele had disclosed information from the dossier to foreign governments. Simpson says he doesn’t have knowledge of that. He has been very careful up to that point to basically give non-answers to much of the questioning along those lines – with whom he and/or Steele shared the dossier information – speaking guardedly and reluctantly, and referring often to confidentiality requirements.
And then, abruptly, the tone of his testimony changes. At the bottom of p. 218, Simpson volunteers that he can talk about the disclosure of the dossier to David Kramer, the one-time aide to John McCain to whom Steele gave a copy of the dossier after the election.
Not only does Simpson volunteer this; his lawyer (Mr. Levy in the transcript) says immediately, “Why don’t you walk them through.” (I.e., through the hand-off to Kramer.)
Simpson is eager, telling the committee, “If you want to know the rest of the story, I’m happy to walk you through it.”
At this point, Simpson is suddenly expansive and loquacious. Clearly, this, and what follows, are what he came to say. Here is his opener, straight from the baseline narrative on “Russia interfering with the election”:
You can read through the story about hooking up with Kramer and McCain in Halifax on your own. Thematically, the thread Simpson maintains is that the significance of what was in the dossier drove the decision to place it in Kramer’s hands.
Now let’s move forward to p. 226. At this point, the questioning by the committee has shifted from the focus on the Kramer hand-off to a tangentially related line of questioning on how Steele’s various known movements and contacts had related to the contract with Fusion.
Recall that the hand-off to Kramer took place in the UK. Steele had also traveled to Rome in September 2016 to meet with an FBI contact. The committee’s questions were about how much these movements had to do with the contract Steele had for political opposition research with Fusion.
Although Simpson has become cagey in his responses again, he opens up full throttle when he starts developing the theme that Steele was motivated by the gravity of what he was finding out about “Trump and Russia.” On p. 226, Simpson reiterates that “gravity of information” theme:
Notice lines 12 through 20, in which he agrees that he was touting the findings from the dossier in briefings with journalists (something established earlier in the testimony). Simpson then identifies the time period in which he referenced Steele’s contacts with the FBI in such briefings as “probably the last few days before the election or immediately thereafter.”
So we know Simpson was feeding a narrative to the media during that period, and that it involved the dossier information, the FBI, and Steele’s contacts with the FBI (although Simpson probably didn’t refer to Steele by name).
It’s when the Senate examination resumes at 4:30 PM that we get a very specific time-hack on this.
The committee is asking about Steele’s contacts with the FBI, and Simpson takes the opportunity to revert to the theme about the gravity of the information. He says Steele broke off contact with the FBI – again, this is in the period right before the election – because the two of them, Simpson and Steele, “didn’t understand what was going on.” He apparently means that the FBI wasn’t responding as they expected to the dossier information.
The lines on the next two pages are the key. Simpson refers to seeing an article in the New York Times that doesn’t comport with what he has been at such pains to tell the media. In fact, the article says the FBI – which Steele has been feeding with the dossier information – has disclosed that there’s been an investigation into Trump’s Russia ties since the summer of 2016, and that “they had investigated this and not found anything, which threw cold water on the whole question through the election.”
When Simpson is asked by the committee if his obvious disappointment about this is “in connection with” his “conversation with journalists” where he “directed them to ask the FBI as to whether there was an investigation going on,” Simpson basically says yes:
…this was during the period when we were encouraging the media to ask questions about whether the FBI was, in fact, investigating these matters.
Simpson goes on to speak of talking up what was in the public record about Carter Page and Paul Manafort, saying “we” – presumably he and Steele, or he and other associates – “spoke broadly to reporters and encouraged them to look into this.” Those allusions are important, as we’ll see.
He acknowledges that they didn’t find out who at the FBI made the inconvenient disclosure that the FBI hadn’t found anything in the course of its investigation at that point (31 October 2016, the date of the NYT article).
After the big crescendo, Simpson’s diminuendo is deflating, and rings a bit odd. Steele “broke off” with the FBI, because:
Chris was confused and somewhat disturbed and didn’t think he understood the landscape and I think both of us felt like things were happening that we didn’t understand and that we must not know everything about, and therefore, you know, in a situation like that the smart thing to do is stand down.
Right. Some commentators in the last 24 hours have been interpreting this and a couple of similarly elliptical statements to mean that Trump might have been exerting some form of influence at the FBI.
But that interpretation is deeply silly. On the other hand, what we discover when we look at that NYT article from 31 October is not at all silly. In fact, it is eye-opening, and turns the key on an object lesson in information-theme placing.
The echo chamber at work
If you want to talk about echo chambers, we’ve got your echo chamber right here. Recall that Fusion was not merely shopping the dossier to the media and the FBI. The customer for the dossier was the DNC, and through the DNC the Clinton campaign.
The NYT article may have gone off the rez a bit in terms of the oppo-research narrative, because it incorporated a counter-narrative disclosure from the FBI. But every other talking source – Democratic politicians, Democratic operatives, and the chorus of the mainstream media, including the very NYT article itself – still recounted exactly the narrative Fusion was pushing.
Here is the brief counter-narrative statement:
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
As we’ll see, this must have been incredibly frustrating for Simpson and his clients, because Simpson, through Steele, had been feeding the FBI for nearly four months at that point, and the narrative had been established very thoroughly with the Democratic organizations and the MSM.
Immediately after the “cold water” of the counter-narrative statement, NYT starts in quoting Democrats.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters, angry over what they regard as a lack of scrutiny of Mr. Trump by law enforcement officials, pushed for these investigations. In recent days they have also demanded that James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., discuss them publicly, as he did last week when he announced that a new batch of emails possibly connected to Mrs. Clinton had been discovered.
Supporters of Mrs. Clinton have argued that Mr. Trump’s evident affinity for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — Mr. Trump has called him a great leader and echoed his policies toward NATO, Ukraine and the war in Syria — and the hacks of leading Democrats like John D. Podesta, the chairman of the Clinton campaign, are clear indications that Russia has taken sides in the presidential race and that voters should know what the F.B.I. has found.
Harry Reid weighed in:
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, responded angrily on Sunday with a letter accusing the F.B.I. of not being forthcoming about Mr. Trump’s alleged ties with Moscow.
“It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity,” Mr. Reid wrote. “The public has a right to know this information.”
Paul Manafort was mentioned:
At least one part of the investigation has involved Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for much of the year. Mr. Manafort, a veteran Republican political strategist, has had extensive business ties in Russia and other former Soviet states, especially Ukraine, where he served as an adviser to that country’s ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.
As was Carter Page:
Mr. Reid, in a letter to Mr. Comey in August, asserted that Mr. Trump’s campaign “has employed a number of individuals with significant and disturbing ties to the Russia and the Kremlin.” Although Mr. Reid cited no evidence and offered no names explicitly, he clearly referred to one of Mr. Trump’s earlier campaign advisers, Carter Page.
Mr. Page, a former Merrill Lynch banker who founded an investment company in New York, Global Energy Capital, drew attention during the summer for a speech in which he criticized the United States and other Western nations for a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
You and I may not have had all these details at our fingertips on the last day of October in 2016. But Fusion’s clients did. The whole ever-loving narrative was out there in black and white, and here was the FBI not picking up the bread crumbs and responding like it could fog a mirror.
But it gets worse, from Simpson’s narrative-professional standpoint. The NYT was by no means the only newsroom retailing the narrative at the time.
The following series of screen captures show what other MSM and overtly left-wing media were selling in the timeframe in question. These are the first six pages of results from a Google search, done 9 January 2017, on “Trump Russia FBI” in the period 30 October to 3 November 2016.
And still the FBI – or at least someone in the FBI – couldn’t take a hint. (It does make you wonder if the Strzok-Page exchange around 3 November, with its reference to throwing someone under the bus, was related in some way to this particular frustration with actions in the Bureau.)
Notice, to bring this back full circle, that what Glenn Simpson went before the Senate Intelligence Committee to do in August 2017 was to sell this same narrative.
If you read through the entire transcript, I think you’ll agree that he was guarded and uncommunicative in answering most of the committee’s questions; that is, the things the committee actually wanted to know. There’s nothing unfair or nefarious about that, necessarily. There would be legitimate reasons to hold some information back in voluntary testimony.
But it makes an informative contrast with Simpson’s eagerness to talk, when it came to doing what he wanted to do – which was place his Trump-Russia narrative with the Senate. And everything he placed with the Senate in August came from the original narrative, whose first chord was struck right after the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, and has continued to echo on the same notes ever since.