Chasing Down Rabbit Holes After Fusion GPS

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Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who was hired by Fusion GPS and compiled a dossier on Donald Trump

In their zeal to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Republicans have found a convenient scapegoat in the controversial consulting firm Fusion GPS. Republicans have subpoenaed the firm’s bank records, questioned its organizers for more than 20 hours, asked the FBI to investigate one of its subcontractors, and sued the firm for defamation.

Fusion GPS is an easy target. As an outfit that traffics in digging up dirt on power brokers, the firm specializes in “finding unsavory things about unsavory people, at the behest of not-especially-savory clients,” notes The New York Times. Republicans have made much of the firm’s ties to Russian lawyer and Moscow insider Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, who participated in a much-scrutinized meeting with Trump’s son, campaign manager, and son-in-law in 2016.

But even Fusion GPS has constitutional and legal rights, and its treatment at the hands of Republicans helps explain why Democrats are so alarmed by the mounting GOP campaign to sabotage Mueller and his investigation. Republicans purport to champion the rule of law and the First Amendment, but their growing effort to discredit Mueller—which intensifies the closer the special counsel gets to the president—places both at risk.

Republicans are “chasing down partisan investigative rabbit holes” and threatening the integrity of the democratic process, charged Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor. Increasingly, the GOP’s favorite rabbit hole is Fusion GPS, which was hired first by Republicans and later by Democrats to investigate Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

Republicans’ special target at Fusion is Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent hired by the firm who produced a notorious “dossier” containing compromising personal and financial information about Trump’s supposed Russian exploits. BuzzFeed published the dossier, despite questions about its credibility. Now Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, who is named in the Trump dossier, has sued both Fusion GPS and BuzzFeed for defamation.

Republicans claim, despite evidence to the contrary, that Russia somehow commissioned the dossier, and that the material triggered Mueller’s probe. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California, whom Democrats say is helping obstruct that panel’s investigation into Russian election interference, has convinced the Justice Department, under threat of subpoena, to hand over documents relating to the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier. And two Senate Republicans—Iowa’s Charles Grassley and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham—have asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Steele lied to federal authorities.

Congressional Republicans also sought to discredit Fusion GPS in a post on the website as “a Russian backed, Democrat connected research firm, with a history of smearing information and pitching fake information to reporters.” The firm’s founders, former journalists Glenn R. Simpson and Peter Fritsch, shot back with a New York Times op-ed calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to release the full transcript of the firm’s testimony.

The op-ed detailed a harassment and intimidation campaign that, had it been orchestrated by Democrats against a GOP firm, would have outraged Republicans. This included personal attacks by Trump, wrote Simpson and Fritsch, and by allies of the president who “dug through our bank records and sought to tarnish our firm to punish us for highlighting his links to Russia. Conservative news outlets and even our former employer, The Wall Street Journal, have spun a succession of mendacious conspiracy theories about our motives and backers.” The two also note that highlighting Trump’s Russia ties “is our right under the First Amendment.”

Judiciary Chairman Grassley balked at the transcript request, and labeled Simpson and Fritsch “uncooperative.” But the panel’s ranking Democrat, California’s Dianne Feinstein, put the lie to that argument when she unilaterally released the full transcript of the Fusion GPS testimony, without consulting Grassley, this week. (Grassley called Feinstein’s move “confounding.”)

The transcript also pokes a hole in Republicans’ attempt to smear Fusion GPS as shill for Democrats. In his testimony, Simpson voices pride in his “long proud history of not being partisan,” and states: “We intentionally don't hire people who have strong partisan affiliations. We prefer journalists who don't see things through ideological prisms and ideological prisms are not helpful for doing research.”

“What Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch and Fusion GPS were doing during the campaign was the essence of free speech and political activity in the midst of a presidential election—looking for information about a presidential candidate, and disseminating it to their client in that context,” says Ted Boutrous, a member of the legal team defending the firm.

Republicans will stop at little to change the subject away from the question at the heart of Meuller’s probe—whether Trump and his team colluded with the Russians during the election, or sought to cover up that fact. The obvious danger is that they are laying the groundwork to remove Mueller entirely, or to curb or cut off funding for his investigation, warns Louis Michael Seidman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. Questions about Fusion GPS and Steele are a distraction, he argues: “What we ought to care about is whether the President of the United States has violated the law, and is suited to serve in that office.”

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