- Russian President Putin makes his annual New Year address to the nation in Moscow
- Thomson Reuters
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interview with the cofounder of Fusion GPS this week.
- It introduced a new name into the Russia investigation: Edward Baumgartner.
- Baumgartner worked with Fusion on two projects that have garnered high-profile attention in recent months.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s unilateral release of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s August interview with Fusion GPS cofounder Glenn Simpson was applauded by those who called it a win for transparency – and a nail in the coffin of GOP lawmakers’ attempts to distract from the probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Others, however, viewed the content of Simpson’s testimony as validation of a talking point often repeated by President Donald Trump and his allies in the media and Congress: Fusion GPS was working both for the Russians and against Trump – albeit on separate projects – during the 2016 election.
The accusation lacks the necessary nuance – Fusion was working for an American law firm, Baker Hostetler, that had been hired by a Russian holding company, Prevezon, as part of a money laundering case in New York’s Southern District court.
Baker Hostetler hired Fusion to look into the wealthy investor Bill Browder, who had told the Justice Department that Prevezon was implicated in a $230 million tax fraud scheme that was uncovered by Browder’s tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2008. The research Fusion did on Browder made it back to Baker and, inevitably, to Prevezon’s Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.
In late 2015, Fusion was hired by the Republican megadonor Paul Singer to work on an entirely separate project: opposition research on Trump. That research, according to Simpson’s testimony, was done using open-source information and covered a wide range of subjects, including the Trump family’s reported use of sweat shops in Asia and South America to produce Trump-branded merchandise.
Christopher Steele, the former British spy who had spent decades on the Moscow desk at the UK’s foreign intelligence service MI6, was not the only subcontractor Fusion hired to research Trump, Simpson said. But his research on Trump’s Russia ties, conducted between June through December 2016, was arguably the most explosive.
Once the timeline of Fusion’s projects had been established, Senate investigators asked Simpson whether any of Fusion’s employees or subcontractors worked on both the Prevezon and Steele projects.
Enter: Edward Baumgartner
Simpson told investigators that Edward Baumgartner, who has a degree in Russian language and runs his own consulting firm similar to Fusion (but with a focus on Russia and Ukraine) worked on both projects.
Simpson said he had been impressed by Baumgartner’s “knowledge of the region and his general abilities,” which, for Fusion and Baker Hostetler, mostly involved discovery – gathering Russian language documents, reading media reports, and interviewing witnesses who speak Russian.
“I don’t speak Russian, I’ve never been to Russia,” Simpson said. “So it would be ordinary course of business for me to identify a specialist who could supply me with that kind of specialized expertise.”
Baumgartner, who cofounded the UK-based intelligence consultancy Edward Austin in 2010, agreed with that characterization in an interview on Wednesday.
“What I do is not a particularly radical or novel skill in London,” Baumgartner said, referring to the large number of Russians that live and work in the city. “In the US, though, we’re actually quite rare.”
Baumgartner, a fluent Russian speaker, said he was hired by Fusion to serve as “an interface” with Veselnitskaya, who does not speak much English. They worked “very closely” together in Washington and Moscow, Baumgartner said, reviewing documents and finding witnesses who could bolster Prevezon’s case.
He said he overheard Veselnitskaya speaking by phone to the Russian prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, several times in a way that struck him as being “friendly, like a family friend,” rather than hierarchical.
‘She never told me anything’
- Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya
- Thomson Reuters
Chaika’s relationship with Veselnitskaya was heavily scrutinized last summer after Donald Trump Jr. released emails showing he had been promised incriminating information on his father’s opponent Hillary Clinton from the “crown prosecutor of Russia” – an apparent reference to Chaika, Russia’s current prosecutor general.
Veselnitskaya attended a meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. She brought with her what she considered to be dirt on Clinton and the Democrats: a memo that suggested the American firm Ziff Brothers Investments – which she said had helped Browder illegally buy up Gazprom shares – had “financed the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
Trump Jr.’s eyes glazed over, according to one source familiar with the meeting. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner were similarly unimpressed, according to their own recollections of the rendezvous.
It is not clear whether that was the only document Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting. But a memo that closely mirrored the one Veselnitskaya brought with her had been given by Chaika’s office to US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher two months earlier, suggesting a degree of coordination between Veselnitskaya and the Russian government.
Baumgartner, for his part, said the last time he met with Veselnitskaya face-to-face was sometime in early June – possibly the day of the Trump Tower meeting, but he couldn’t recall the exact date.
“She never told me anything about what was going on,” Baumgartner said, referring to the Trump Tower meeting. “She’s obviously very good at compartmentalizing.”
Veselnitskaya didn’t tell Simpson about the meeting, either, according to his congressional testimony.
“Natalia respected Glenn’s work, but they rarely spoke to each other,” Baumgartner said. “She never went to his office, and even if they did have a conversation, Anatoli would have had to translate it.”
Baumgartner was ‘never made aware of’ the dossier
- Carter Page, former foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign, speaks to the media after testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC.
- Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Anatoli Samochornov is a US citizen who had translated for Veselnitskaya in court and for her lobbying group, the Human Rights Global Accountability Initiative Foundation. The Delaware-based NGO, which was founded in February 2016, has been lobbying to overturn the Magnitsky Act sanctions spearheaded by Browder.
Baumgartner said that while he stopped dealing with Veselnitskaya in June 2016, his legal involvement with the Prevezon case formally ended in October 2016. By that point, he had been working with Fusion GPS on its election-related opposition research for about three months.
“I was helping them on this other project, which was unrelated, and they mentioned it to me in July 2016,” Baumgartner said, referring to the election-related research. “I was never made aware of Chris Steele’s work or the dossier, and it was kept that way deliberately. I would have had nothing to add, anyway. I produce memos based on information that is in the public record that can be given to the feds or shared with journalists.”
Baumgartner declined to speak in detail about the election-related work he did for Fusion. But he said his responsibilities involved, among other things, writing reports that compiled “everything publicly known” about Trump campaign associates like Carter Page and Manafort.
With regard to what Fusion told journalists about the research it had been doing throughout 2016, Simpson, like Baumgartner, said the firm discussed things with reporters that were already “in the public record.” Specifically, he said, that included “open-source public information pointing towards the possibility that the Russians had infiltrated the Trump campaign.”
“So we spoke broadly to reporters and encouraged them to look into this,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
‘They offer people business deals as a way to compromise them’
Simpson went on in the testimony to describe in more detail how Fusion went about analyzing the raw intelligence Steele reported back to the firm from his sources in Russia and elsewhere. Page’s trip to Moscow in July 2016, for example, was closely scrutinized by the firm following Steele’s report that Page had met with Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russia’s state oil company.
Sechin, according to Steele’s sources, had offered Page and his associates the brokerage of a 19% stake in the company in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions.
“It comports with my knowledge, and Chris’s knowledge, of how the Kremlin does this,” Simpson told the committee. “Which is they offer people business deals as a way to compromise them.”
Sergei Ivanov, who served as Putin’s chief of staff until August 2016,was managing the election interference operation, according to Steele’s sources.
“So we looked into Carter Page and we also looked into Igor Sechin and whether Sergei Ivanov was in a position to be managing the election operation … and we determined that he was,” Simpson said.
Steele was wary of being fed disinformation, Simpson told the committee. A central concern among those scrutinizing the overlap between Fusion’s work for Prevezon and its Trump-related research was whether the Russians would catch wind of that project and plant disinformation to undermine it.
Simpson said Steele was armed against those kinds of tricks.
“What [Steele] said was: ‘Disinformation is an issue in my profession, it is a central concern, and we are trained to spot disinformation,” Simpson said. “‘And if I believed this was disinformation, or I had concerns about that, I would tell you that. And I’m not telling you that. I’m telling you that I don’t believe this is disinformation.’”