On Tuesday, those tracking the details of the Russia investigation were handed an unexpected collection of information: a lightly redacted transcript of Simpson’s testimony, released by the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Over the course of more than 300 pages, Simpson fields a number of questions about his firm’s work and the revelations contained in that dossier, a collection of 17 reports from former intelligence officer Christopher Steele written between late June and December 2016.
At one point, Simpson describes a meeting Steele had with the FBI in Rome in mid- to late September of that year. As Simpson describes that meeting, he makes a remarkable claim.
Q: You said that [Steele] told you of the meeting with the FBI in Rome in mid or late September, that he “gave them a full briefing”?
Simpson: A debrief I think is what he probably said, they had debriefed him. I don’t remember him articulating the specifics of that. You know, my understanding was that they would have gotten into who his sources were, how he knew certain things, and, you know, other details based on their own intelligence.
Essentially what he told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.
Asked if he knew who that source was, Simpson declined to answer, though he did explain a bit more about what Steele told him. (Note that this is Simpson conveying what Steele says he was told by his FBI source in Rome.)
” . . . I think it was a voluntary source, someone who was concerned about the same concerns we had,” Simpson explained. “It was someone like us who decided to pick up the phone and report something.”
In short, it’s not clear from this testimony who the “human source” from inside the Trump organization is — or even what Simpson means by “Trump organization.”
Here’s what we do know: By the time of the September meeting (Steele’s second with the FBI; he contacted them earlier in the year and met with them in early July), Steele’s dossier included the majority of the reports he would eventually file. The timing, it seems, correlates to a batch of reports Steele filed Sept. 14, addressing several subjects, including:
- The existence of further compromising material on Hillary Clinton, described as “emails.” This was after the release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (which happened in late June) but before the release of the emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Those emails would be released in July, having been stolen beginning in March 2016.
- The firing of Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, allegedly for giving Putin bad advice on interfering in the election. (This has not been verified.)
- An allegation that Trump paid bribes to secure a business deal in St. Petersburg.
It seems likely, then, that this information would have been shared with Steele in that conversation with the FBI agent.
Here we’ll step aside to note that the release of the testimony by Feinstein was not the first time that Simpson indicated that the FBI already had a source that would confirm the themes of Steele’s dossier. Earlier this month, he co-authored an essay that appeared in the New York Times and included these lines:
We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian meddling. As we told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August, our sources said the dossier was taken so seriously because it corroborated reports the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp.
After that claim, Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand reported being told by a source that “it was a reference to George Papadopoulos — the young Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser who drunkenly told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 about ‘dirt’ the Russians had on Hillary Clinton.”
The implication is that “source” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean someone who was providing information willingly or directly. Papadopoulos, you will recall, was revealed to have admitted to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people connected to Russia when interviewed last year, after the campaign. That admission wasn’t made public until late October, raising the idea that he was cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation.
More recently, the New York Times reported that it was Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier, that triggered the Russian investigation in the first place, kicking off in July 2016. An Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, was told by Papadopoulos during a drinking session in May about a cache of emails related to Clinton that were in the possession of the Russians. Papadopoulos had been told this by Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor. When the DNC emails were made public the next month, the Australians told the FBI what they’d heard from Papadopoulos.
On Tuesday, Bertrand indicated that Simpson’s descriptions of his sources in his August testimony referred to Papadopoulos and the Australians. (“SJC” is an abbreviation for “Senate Judiciary Committee.”)
NBC’s Ken Dilanian reported something similar.
The timeline, then, goes like this.
- March 19: Podesta receives an email that allows the Russians to access his email account.
- April 26: Papadopoulos is told by Mifsud that the Russians have “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails.
- May: Papadopoulos tells the Australian diplomat what he’s heard.
- Mid-June: Files stolen from the DNC begin to leak.
- June 20: Steele’s first report is filed.
- First week of July: Steele has an initial meeting with the FBI.
- Early July: The Australians tell the FBI what they’d heard.
- July 19-Sept. 14: Steele files 11 more reports.
- Mid- to late September: Steele meets with an FBI contact in Rome.
- Oct. 7: Intelligence officials publicly warn of attempts by Russia to interfere with the election. The same day, Podesta’s emails begin to be leaked by WikiLeaks.
- Nov. 8: Trump wins the presidential election.
- Dec. 13: The last report is added to the dossier.
- Jan. 20: Trump is inaugurated.
- Jan. 27: Papadopoulos is interviewed by the FBI.
- July 27: Papadopoulos is arrested.
- Aug. 22: Simpson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
- Oct. 30: Papadopoulos’ admission of having lied to the FBI is made public.
The revelation from the testimony released Tuesday seems like a new piece to the puzzle — but it’s worth remembering that what we now know about Papadopoulos was not public at the time. That may help explain part of Simpson’s reluctance to point a finger at Papadopoulos as that unnamed corroborator.
Why didn’t Simpson simply share the identity of the source with the Senate? He explained that it was for “security” reasons.
“I was really careful throughout this process to not ask a lot of specific sourcing questions,” he testified. “There are some things I know that I just don’t feel comfortable sharing because obviously it’s been in the news a lot lately that people who get in the way of the Russians tend to get hurt.”
At another point in the testimony, Simpson’s lawyers put a fine point on that argument, stating that “somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier.”
Who that person is isn’t clear.