‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow’? True dat!
Two guys are hitting it hard at an upscale bar in London. One of them is drunker, maybe a lot drunker, than the other. His name is George Papadopolous, a very well turned out 20-something, working as a foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump, who, at that moment is close to clinching the Republican nomination for President. Maybe that was what Papadopoulos was celebrating with his drinking buddy of that night in May 2016, the distinguished 60-something former Australian foreign minister and political leader Alexander Downer.
Or maybe Papadopoulos was just celebrating himself, previewing his role as a big-time foreign policy advisor to the next President of the United States by blurting to Downer the assertion that has shaken the world. The reason he knew Trump would win, Papadopoulos told Downer, was because he had it on good Russian authority that the Kremlin was in possession of thousands of emails that were potentially devastating for Hillary Clinton.
Yada yada, senior diplomat Downer thought, just bar talk,– until news broke a month or so later, that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee databank. Downer quickly communicated to the FBI that this young braggart on the Trump team seemed to have had inside information on the Russian hacking. The lights went on, right then, on the FBI investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Then, another well-credentialed source dropped info on the FBI. Christopher Steele was as respected a UK intelligence specialist on Russia as Alex Downer was in diplomacy, and he shared parts of his ongoing research into serial indiscretions committed by Trump associates in pursuit of the very same kind of stuff Papadopoulos was babbling about. He worried a political candidate might be dangerously vulnerable to Russian blackmail. The FBI seemed to agree and even talked about putting Steele on a paid contract.
But Steele was already under contract. He’d been hired to catalog the whole history of Trump connections to Russian oligarchs, President Putin, and organized crime, and he told the Feds, he’d found a lot of them. The guy who hired him, Glenn Simpson of the “research firm” Fusion GPS, wasn’t surprised. He’d already collected evidence that linked Trump to American organized crime and he’d spent years investigating Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort’s Russian connections.
The opposition research focused on Donald Trump’s American career had been paid for by Paul Singer, a right-wing Republican billionaire backing Marco Rubio. When Trump clinched, Singer’s conservative website, Washington Free Beacon, ended its contract with Fusion GPS.
That’s when two things happened: Glenn Simpson offered his Trump oppo file to the lawyers for the Clinton campaign, who bought it, and much more. Clinton campaign money paid to take the Trump-hunt global. Fusion GPS hired Steele for a “no stone unturned” investigation of Trump in Russia, which turned into 35 pages of field notes and analysis known as “the dossier.”
What followed has been a metaphoric forest of mighty oak-sized news stories, starting with the publication of the Steele dossier by Buzzfeed just weeks before President Trump was to be sworn in.
Simpson says he has no idea how that happened. Fusion GPS, he says, didn’t give it to Buzzfeed. Rather, Steele has admitted, Simpson directed him to get it to bigger platforms, the NY Times, Washington Post or ABC News.
Which tells a lot about Simpson, Fusion GPS, and the state of politically-inspired opposition research.
Jack Gillum is a reporter on the investigative team at The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, he was a reporter on the Washington investigative team of the Associated Press (AP), focused privacy, technology and surveillance. Before that he had worked on investigative projects at USA Today and, before that, way out here in the Southwest, Gillum covered the aerospace and technology business for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.