In July, when news broke that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met last year with a Russian lawyer and a former Russian intelligence officer who promised dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign, there was a media feeding frenzy. After months of speculation about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, this meeting was something concrete.
However, there was one detail about the meeting that the media and Democrats in Congress have decidedly not been in a frenzy to feed on. The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was also collaborating with Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm that has mainly done work for interests aligned with the Democratic party. Fusion GPS has denied any role in setting up the Trump Jr. meeting. However, the firm has worked with Veselnitskaya in her lobbying to lift U.S. sanctions aimed at Putin and fellow Russian kleptocrats who are squirreling away billions in Western financial institutions. Aspects of this issue—Moscow’s 2012 ban on American adoptions of Russian children, in retaliation for the sanctions—were reportedly discussed during her meeting with the Trump campaign.
Here’s where it gets weird: Fusion GPS is the same firm that was hired to put together the infamous “dossier” on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. The dossier is said to have been commissioned by the campaign of a Republican primary opponent before the project was taken over and funded by some unidentified Democratic client after Trump won the GOP nomination. It contained a wild mix of allegations, some salacious, some provably false, many of them hard or impossible to corroborate. Despite questions about the document’s reliability, the FBI relied on it in part to procure a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to eavesdrop on Carter Page, a former national security adviser to the Trump campaign.
In short, it appears Fusion GPS was simultaneously on the payroll of Democratic interests seeking to discredit Trump on the basis of his ties to the Russian government even as it was working on a lobbying effort whose beneficiaries would be Vladimir Putin and his billionaire cronies.
All this was sordid-looking enough for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was investigating the Trump meeting, to seek testimony from Fusion GPS founder and former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson. He balked, and negotiations reportedly foundered on his unwillingness to reveal the client who had been paying for the Trump-Russia dossier. After the threat of a subpoena, Simpson eventually agreed to speak to the committee privately.
That Fusion GPS no doubt has things to hide doesn’t necessarily mean it is part of some grand Russian conspiracy. There are sharks lurking in the murkier waters of the fabled Washington swamp: very profitable and mercenary firms that specialize in the dark arts of opposition research and media manipulation. They tend not to be picky about clients and grow less picky as the clients grow more lucrative. That could conceivably explain Fusion GPS’s role in all this.
Fusion GPS has been in the news two notable times in the last five years. In 2012, Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel reported that the firm was behind a smear campaign targeting conservative donors to Mitt Romney. The outfit had even dug up divorce records of one Idaho Republican who had donated $1 million to a pro-Romney super-PAC. Simpson didn’t deny his firm was behind the effort and told Strassel the donor was a “legitimate” target.