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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Crime in Progress,’ an attempt to set the record straight, offers other side of story

By Sunday, Feb 2, 2020 Arts & Entertainment

Crime in Progress
Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch
Random House
Copyright © 2019 by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch

Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch call their book “Crime in Progress” and their criminal-in-chief is not the president but the man behind the scene: “The story begins not with Trump but with Vladimir Putin, who for more than a decade aggressively pursued ways to covertly influence and disrupt the domestic politics of the United States and numerous other Western democracies he blamed for stripping Russia of its rightful role as a superpower … cultivating support abroad for its political priorities, especially recognition of its territorial claims over parts of the former Soviet Union …

“Trump was more of a target of opportunity than a Manchurian candidate who was somehow brainwashed by Putin. He’s simply the latest and most powerful politician to look past the crimes of an autocrat when there’s possible money on the table. Trump’s long infatuation with making deals in the former Soviet Union, combined with his craven desire for an economic comeback after years of bankruptcy, made him the most susceptible among a number of American political figures from both parties whom the Russians targeted for cultivation over many years.”

As America was roiled by the charges of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump & Company, his allies at FOX News, and Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley and Congressman Devin Nunes, fiercely fought back against those they regarded as the architects of the WITCH HUNT, the enablers of Christopher Steele’s despised “dodgy Dossier.”

They focused on Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, our authors, the men behind Fusion GPS, the self-described “opposition research” and “political consulting” firm — and Christopher Steele, the former British spy Fusion hired to investigate Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

Peter Fritsch and Glenn Simpson on ‘Meet The Press.’ Image courtesy NBC

Given the central role Vladimir Putin played in this drama, they acknowledge the great vulnerability of the Russian whistleblowers who shared with Christopher Steele their inside information about what Putin and his colleagues were up to. “Crime in Progress” notes that when the draft dossier was leaked: “Inside the Fusion office, panic ensued. Fritsch ran to find Simpson, who was already screaming into the phone at Ken Bensinger, the lead reporter on the BuzzFeed story. ‘Take those fucking reports down right now!’ Simpson yelled. ‘You are going to get people killed!’

Anyone who’s watched MSNBC or FOX the past few years has heard about the dossier, phony or legit depending on who you’re listening to you, and about Christopher Steele, the alleged Trump pee tape, and Nellie Ohr, the wife of DOJ agent Bruce Ohr, who worked at Fusion GPS, the company behind the dossier. “Crime in Progress” is Simpson and Fritsch’s attempt to set the record straight, to offer the other side of the story. And lucky for us, Simpson and Fritsch, who both spent years as investigative reporters at the Wall Street Journal, know how to tell a story.

The Fusion critics made the stakes extraordinarily high: “Their baseless allegations about Fusion’s work, which at their core attacked the constitutional right to free speech, ultimately forced the firm and some of its clients to provide documents and testimony about its research efforts — information Fusion would have otherwise been contractually obligated to keep confidential.”

If there was a silver lining, it was that “Congress’s assault on Fusion provided the firm with an unexpected opportunity to tell the true story of its investigations into Trump and its work with Christopher Steele.”

And “Crime in Progress” offers us that opportunity. It all began in August 2015, when “as absurd as Trump seemed, Simpson sensed a rich research and business opportunity. ‘Trump’ was the subject heading in the email he sent that Sunday morning to a longtime Republican politico. ‘Couple interesting threads that might be worth a look if you know anyone who might be interested in funding.’”

So, Fusion GPS was first hired not by Hillary Clinton but by a conservative Republican convinced Trump would hurt his party. “At that point, neither Simpson nor Fritsch knew much about Trump … A couple of brief flirtations with a presidential run, frequent fulminations over trade or immigration policy, and a lot of potshots, some racially tinged, at President Obama — that was about it …”

Simpson reached out to Wayne Barrett, former reporter at the Village Voice: “Barrett briefed him on Trump. Not nearly as rich as he claims. Terrible toward women. Serial liar. Lousy businessman. Ties to organized crime.”

Fusion decided to “research Donald Trump’s … overall record of tax avoidance, use of bankruptcies to victimize workers and small businessmen, and overall litigation history. The foundation of the research would be the collection and compilation of a large stash of news articles, books, and corporate, legal, and tax records, the beginnings of what was to become a vast repository of Trump data …”

Interestingly, they weren’t focused on Russia at all, but on today’s magic word: corruption. And it was the way Donald Trump did business that led them to the Russians: “Fusion had done a lot of legal research over the years, and it had never encountered a person who had initiated or been the target of as much litigation as Donald Trump … cases that ran the gamut from allegations of fraud to unpaid bills …

“Donald Trump has done business with at least 25 individuals and companies with documented mob ties, including various powerful Italian and Russian syndicates. Casino regulators in at least three states have extensively investigated Trump for his dealings with organized crime. Two of those states, Missouri and Pennsylvania, refused to grant Trump a casino license with little explanation.”

And remember that funny movie, “The Russians Were/Are Coming”: “The New York Times in December 2007, carried a mundane headline, ‘Real Estate Executive with Hand in Trump Projects Rose from Tangled Past.’ It detailed [Felix] Sater’s ties to the Mafia and his reinvention as a real estate executive working with Trump …

“The feds had accused him of large-scale money laundering and stock manipulation involving Italian organized crime. He was Russian-born and grew up in the rough-and-tumble émigré neighborhood of Brighton Beach … intriguing were several lawsuits that had been filed against Sater’s real estate firm, Bayrock Group, in Florida and several other states. Trump had done several projects with Bayrock and was named in the suits. Sater worked out of an office just one floor below the Trump Organization, in Trump Tower … In depositions, Trump seemed to grow vague and evasive when asked about Sater and Bayrock, claiming he did not know Sater well and ‘never really understood who owned Bayrock.’”

Donald Trump and Felix Sater, Trump Soho Launch Event, Sept. 19, 2007. Photo: Mark Von Holden, WireImage

Simpson and Fritsch focused more on Russia: “At the Republican debate on September 16, Trump declared his admiration for Putin and predicted that he would be on the warmest of terms with the former KGB officer. ‘I would talk to him. I would get along with him,’ Trump said, pledging that if he became president, ‘we won’t have the kind of problems that our country has right now with Russia.’”

Fusion discovered “Trump’s legally required candidate financial disclosure … showed that most of Trump’s bank loans came from a single institution, Deutsche Bank … Trump claimed in his filings to be worth more than $10 billion, but the evidence he proffered to support this was notably flimsy …

“Trump’s reputation as a savvy billionaire was further belied by his creation of Trump University, a for-profit, unaccredited real estate training school that had drawn a raft of lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny before it shut down in 2010 after five years of operation. The school was an obvious scam … The accumulated lawsuits all began to sound somewhat the same, indicating an increasingly obvious pattern. A Trump development would begin with great fanfare, Trump and his children proudly proclaiming their extensive personal involvement and the Trump Organization’s stake in the project, as well as extolling the intense early buyer interest and sales. Eventually, the project would fail, the sales claims would turn out to be hype, and the investors and partners would sue Trump. Then Trump would claim he was not the developer, merely a licensor. This happened from New York to Florida to Panama …

As for follow the money: “Deepening the mystery was the disconnect between Trump’s business failures and the huge sums of money flowing through his projects. No project illustrated that more vividly than the Trump SoHo development involving Felix Sater and Bayrock. A lawsuit filed in New York federal court that Fusion retrieved alleged that Bayrock and other developers that did business with Trump and Sater had been involved in laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in hot money from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, a remote, corruption-riddled dictatorship sandwiched between Russia and China …

“In 2011, amid a fraud investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, Trump and his co-defendants agreed to settle a civil suit by Trump SoHo customers and refunded most of the project’s more than $3 million in deposits …

More Felix Sater, and enter Michael Cohen: “Only much later, in 2018, would it emerge that the Trump Organization had been secretly pushing ahead all along with a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow — a 100-story skyscraper with 250 luxury condos, at least 150 hotel rooms, and a ‘Spa by Ivanka Trump.’ Handling that deal was Sater and Trump’s own right-hand man, a onetime personal-injury lawyer and New York taxi entrepreneur named Michael Cohen … On October 13, 2015, Sater forwarded a letter to Cohen signifying their intent to go ahead with the Moscow deal, which Trump reportedly signed two weeks later.

“The Russia coincidences continued to pile up. On October 29, Trump’s primary remaining bank lender — Deutsche Bank — announced it was setting aside $1.3 billion to cover legal expenses related to global allegations that it had laundered billions of dollars in dirty money from Russia in a complex case unrelated to Trump … 

“The emerging theory of the case was that Trump’s repeated bankruptcies had left him unable to raise money from banks and ordinary investors, so he’d replaced them with illicit sources of foreign cash. The theory grew out of prior Fusion money-laundering investigations, including one in which the proceeds of suspected narcotics trafficking and political corruption in Latin America landed in South Florida condominium projects … (Emphasis added.) 

“In the fall of 2015, Trump started to make a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia one of his main foreign policy talking points on the presidential campaign trail. By then, Putin had invaded two of Russia’s neighbors and ordered a state-sponsored murder in central London. No one in official Washington was talking anymore about making friends with Vladimir Putin …

“Yet Trump talked as if none of that recent history had occurred. ‘I will get along — I think —with Putin,’ Trump claimed during a televised Republican debate in September … Then, in a November 10 debate, Trump boasted that he and Putin were pals. ‘I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes. We were stablemates, and we did very well that night.’ It was an odd statement — and also complete fiction …

With all its work, Fusion learned that the Russians were making multiple efforts in a variety of ways to influence the Trump campaign: “Bloomberg filed a story from Spain about a Russian named Alexander Torshin … who had gone on to run the Central Bank of the Russian Federation [and] was the subject of an investigation in Spain into money laundering by a Russian organized crime syndicate called the Taganskaya Gang …”

Oddly, Torshin was a member of the NRA where he connected with Donald Trump Jr. We learn “Torshin had attracted attention in late 2004 for his role in supporting rigged elections designed to put Russia’s favored candidate, Manafort client Viktor Yanukovych, into power in Ukraine …” These days so many roads lead to Ukraine.

To Fusion, this confluence of an alleged Russian criminal and associate of Putin, money laundering, support for election interfering by Russia in another country, was evidence of: “a unified-field theory of Russian venality. In sum, the Kremlin had a guerrilla army of oligarchs, spies, and gangsters — some of whom were all three — spread across the free world. They were now working in concert to destabilize the West by infiltrating and corrupting right-wing political parties and their affiliated social issue groups, like gun rights groups and the Christian right.” (Emphasis added.)

Now onto an essential element of the Witch Hunt story, the Nellie Ohr mythology perpetrated by Donald Trump, his Republican allies and FOX News, the concocted conspiracy by a Deep State – Comey, Page and Strzok, McCabe, Bruce Ohr and his wife, Nellie, of Fusion GPS and Steele’s Fake Dossier.

But Fusion GPS hired Nellie Ohr not because she was the wife of the DOJ’s Bruce Ohr, but because she was fluent in Russian with a Ph.D. from Stanford in Russian history, experienced working on government projects specializing in “profiling individuals and companies, both legitimate and criminal to disentangle their relationships — especially any possible ties with the Russian military or special services or with Eurasian crime groups …

“Nellie Ohr came back with her first big memo on Trump and his Russia ties, a copious sweep through Russian-language media. Among other things, Ohr noted the importance of Trump’s holding the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and how he had talked about plans for a Trump Tower there …

“Ohr supplied Fusion with a second batch of findings in which she dug deeper into the lesser-known history of Trump’s ties to Russia. She had unearthed a number of puzzling statements, such as when Trump supposedly told a Russian reporter in 2015 that he had donated $5,000 to RT, the Russian government’s propaganda machine, ‘to fight against the American evil in the form of Senator John McCain and other idiots.’

“Far more significant to Fusion’s emerging theory of the case, she found a 2008 article in Russian in which Trump said that Russians were his favorite customers because they always paid in cash and did not need mortgages … The story lent support to the idea that sometime in the mid-2000s, Trump revived his business enterprise with hot cash from the former Soviet Union — something that Fusion now set out to attempt to document … (Emphasis added.)

“‘I have a very good business relationship with the Russians,’ Trump told the Russian magazine Seagull. ‘A Russian recently bought a house in Florida from me for $100 million. Some Russians buy homes for $50 million. Great shoppers! People with good taste and good money understand the value of the Trump brand. It is always a guarantee of quality and a win-win location. By investing in Trump, you invest for sure. By the way, I really like Vladimir Putin. I respect him. He does his job well. Much better than our Bush.’

In May 2016, Fusion hired Christopher Steele “to tap his Russian source network to answer some nagging questions … Why had Trump made so many trips to Russia over the years, without ever getting a single development project off the ground? Why did so many threads in the Trump story lead to Moscow and figures close to Putin? And why was Trump so smitten with Putin, who seemed fond of Trump in return?”

It turns out I knew nothing about Fusion’s decision to hedge its bets: “Fritsch woke up on the morning of March 1, Super Tuesday, knowing a Trump nomination was now all but inevitable … He figured the funders of the Free Beacon would soon resign themselves to a Trump candidacy and pull the plug on their opposition research efforts … It seemed obvious that demand for information on Trump would soon shift to the Democrats …

“[Fritsch] fired off an email to a senior figure in the Democratic Party establishment. The subject line was simple: ‘Trump.’ So was the message: ‘Ok he has to be stopped,’ Fritsch wrote. ‘We have done the most on him.’ Nine minutes later, Fritsch received a reply: ‘Yes. Let’s talk.’

“Simpson wasn’t a big fan of the Clintons, having covered them as a journalist: the Whitewater mess, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and, most important, Bill Clinton’s courtship of Chinese campaign contributions during the 1996 race for president … The river of foreign money that later coursed through the Clinton Global Initiative suggested to Simpson that the Clintons presided over a twenty-first-century political machine built on peddling influence to foreign oligarchs and other foreign interests, many of whom benefited in one way or another from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s actions in office …

“By March 1, Simpson had begun to reconsider … ‘The only way I could see working for HRC is if it is against Trump,’ he wrote. ‘We should make sure [the Democrats] know we have a big book on Trump. Lest they try to buy it someplace else.’ … There was now unanimity inside Fusion on the need to do what they could to keep Trump out of the White House … Many of his traits disqualified him for the job, and his political rhetoric was loathsome, but his ties to the criminal underworld, his reliance on hidden flows of Russia money, and his record of chicanery in business topped the list.”

“The next day, Simpson and Fritsch sat down in Washington with Marc Elias, an attorney at Perkins Coie … [who] served as general counsel to both the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary for America campaign … He had heard of the research Fusion had done on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital during the 2012 campaign and said he needed that kind of deep research on Trump … Money wouldn’t be a problem, Elias said. Clinton, the Democratic Party, and related PACs would go on to raise over $1.2 billion for her campaign.

And it’s important to emphasize: “For all the conspiracy theories and accusations that came later … As far as Fusion knew, Clinton herself had no idea who they were. To this day, no one in the company has ever met or spoken to her. (Emphasis added.)

“Elias said the campaign knew what it needed to know about Trump on a lot of the issues … Less understood, he said, was how Trump had managed to recover from a string of bankruptcies that should have ruined him. Where did his money come from, how much did he really have, and who helped him? ‘We know what he says,’ Elias said. ‘We need you guys to figure out who he is.’ …

“Trump’s affiliations with Russians of all kinds, Simpson said, went way back to the opening of Trump Tower in the early 1980s, when known Russia-connected mobsters like David Bogatin began scooping up units, often to obscure the source of criminal profits … In project after project, from Florida to Panama to Toronto, Russians with dubious résumés and questionable pasts turned out in great numbers to buy Trump-branded units …

“As Trump’s own financial travails grew in the late 1980s, so did his outreach and ties to Russia … While Trump hadn’t succeeded in investing in Russia, they said, the Russians had definitely begun making an investment in Trump. Many had troubling backgrounds, and they highlighted the criminal record of Felix Sater and Trump’s history of lying about their relationship. By 2008, Donald Trump Jr. was boasting that Russians ‘make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.’ Five years later, in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, Trump again suggested that he was deep into talks for a Trump skyscraper. (Only much later would investigators uncover that his own representatives were trying to cook up a Trump project in Moscow even as he campaigned to be president.) …

“In other words, Fritsch and Simpson stated what seemed obvious: The party of Ronald Reagan, whose antipathy to the Soviet Union had helped precipitate its collapse, might have real qualms about a nominee with such close ties to the remnants of what Reagan had called the Evil Empire …

“This angle was all new to Elias, and he loved it. The research book the DNC had put together on Trump, he said, contained none of this stuff. Fusion’s research team would soon be hired and given wide latitude to go where the story led it …

“The costliest component of the work, they told Elias, would be some on-the-ground reporting they envisioned doing outside the United States … The riskiest bit of fieldwork, which they didn’t yet share with Elias, would be in Russia. They knew just the guy for the job: a Russian-speaking former spy. They figured they could do that work discreetly. No one would ever find out about it …

Enter Christopher Steele, who “wasted no time digging into Trump’s Russia connections. In mid-June, just days after the still-secret Trump Tower meeting, Steele called Simpson with concern in his voice. His sources had come back to him with astonishing reporting, information he wasn’t comfortable sharing over the phone, even on an encrypted line …

“The FedEx sleeve was addressed to Simpson … There was no cover letter or other marking to indicate who had written what was inside, or why. The document’s header read CONFIDENTIAL/SENSITIVE SOURCE. Below was a simple two-and-a-half-page document of text with a four-paragraph summary and six bullet points …

“Stylistically, the memo was typical of a field intelligence report: a sober recitation of what sources had said … As with the other fifteen memos that Steele would file over the course of the summer and fall, it didn’t purport to be flawless or 100 percent accurate, but it did purport to be credible, a crucial distinction. His memoranda, like all such humint products, are designed to pass along meaningful tips from credible sources to help flesh out or buttress other reporting. And, equally important, they are meant for an intentionally small audience who understands their context and purpose but also their idiosyncrasies and limitations.

The memos, it’s important to note, “were never meant to be viewed outside of a tiny circle of people, much less shared with the public. In unredacted form, the reports could expose Steele’s sources and jeopardize lives. Steele took great care to mask those sources in his reports to Fusion …”

“Fusion had expected Steele to come back with information about Trump’s many failed business deals in Russia … Simpson later told congressional investigators: “We threw a line in the water and Moby Dick came back …

Importantly, Fusion discovered that Steele’s information had come from Russians in a position to know: “Steele was elliptical but firm. The sources were good: Source A was ‘a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure’; source B ‘a former top-level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin’; source C ‘a senior Russian financial official’; source D ‘a close associate of Trump’; sources E and F were inside the Ritz; and source G was “a senior Kremlin official.”

In light of all the news coverage that has slammed the dossier, I imagine many will be surprised that “Crime in Progress” makes this startling claim:

“A handful of documents in recent times have bent the course of history deeply enough to merit their own sobriquet. The Pentagon Papers. The Warren Report. The Starr Report. Time will tell whether the Steele dossier—that collection of intelligence snapshots from a former British spy’s source network — deserves to take its place among them. As a touchstone for the Trump-Russia scandal, it is already perhaps the most famous work of opposition research in American politics.” (Emphasis added.)

Draft dossier leaked by BuzzFeed

Fusion was stunned by what Steele unearthed: “‘Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in the western alliance’ … Russia’s main spy service, the report said, ‘has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.’ The Russians had also amassed a mound of compromising material on Hillary Clinton, which they had yet to share with the Trump campaign. ‘Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear.’

“The memo went on to recount a bizarre episode that allegedly took place in the presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2013. Steele’s sources said that Trump’s hatred of the Obamas ran so deep that he had asked ‘a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him,’ to defile the bed in which the Obamas had slept years earlier. The report said Russian intelligence had it on videotape for potential use as a tool of blackmail. Steele would later point out that one of his sources was a hotel staffer who had been on duty at the time.

“The reaction to the dossier hit every imaginable extreme … What none of them knew was that … the Steele memos were but a tiny subset of a vast cache of disturbing information Fusion had accumulated about Trump and Russia over the previous sixteen months …

What was clear in January 2017 was that Fusion GPS, a tiny investigative research company tucked above a Starbucks and a used clothing store in Washington, D.C., was now in the middle of a dizzying political drama that seemed like something drawn from a Hollywood screenplay. The odds it would survive were not good.” (Emphasis added.) 

The stakes, Fusion knew, were huge: “If Trump was truly beholden to Putin, or susceptible to being manipulated by him, the implications were chilling … The possible consequences of Trump’s unchecked friendliness toward Putin included the lifting of sanctions on Russia, the weakening or even demise of NATO, the spread of Russian-style corruption and kleptocracy to the West, and, more immediately for Fusion, the threat of retaliation from an incoming regime eager to even the score against its critics and whistleblowers …”

And the consequences of the BuzzFeed News leak for Fusion: “Not only would the media and the government relentlessly pursue the truth about Trump’s ties to Russia, they would also hunt down his accusers.”

I found it interesting that, in the midst of all this, Christopher Steele stayed true to his roots. He was an intelligence officer and recognized a profound threat to American security. More than anything else, Steele felt compelled to share this intelligence with those whose job it is to protect the United States.

“Within days of sending Fusion his first memo, Christopher Steele called Simpson to say he’d reached a startling conclusion: He needed to inform the FBI of what he had found. This was just one memorandum, but if the thrust of it was correct, Steele said, the United States and its allies were facing a potential national security emergency. He believed he had a duty to act.

“Simpson was taken aback. His first thought was that Fusion’s client would likely object to such a move. Steele didn’t know it at the time, but the client was the Clinton campaign, whose standard-bearer was still under investigation by the FBI. It would be unusual practice for a contractor working for the Clinton campaign to turn around and send the FBI information about Trump. But from where Steele sat, his concern was security, not politics.

“In any event, Simpson added, he didn’t know anyone at the FBI that he could report something like this to and be believed. Steele told Simpson not to worry. He could handle it. He knew the perfect person. Simpson asked for time to mull it over. The following day, Steele called again. This time he was even more insistent.”

I found it refreshing that Simpson is honest enough to admit Fusion didn’t appreciate the great stakes involved, and I credit him with acknowledging the integrity of Christopher Steele, a man who’s been unfairly vilified. More than anyone else, he is the hero of this story.

I’m going to leave the rest to you to discover. Hopefully I’ve introduced you to the mystery without spoiling the details of what’s to come. Broadly speaking, there are the unrelenting attacks by Chuck Grassley and Devin Nunes, there’s the appearance Maria Buttina and William Barr and Robert Mueller and Michael Cohen and lots more Putin.

Let me just say that as the president’s defenders in the impeachment hearing reprise the fodder of Trump rallies and tweet-storms, the multiple conspiracies of the Deep State Witch Hunt, you owe it yourself to look beneath the curtains of distraction.

A last peek: Considering the theory that Hillary and the Dems, Fusion GPS, Nellie Ohr, Christopher Steele and the men and women of the FBI, those who, to this day, President Trump refers to as “dirty cops,” all conspired to create a witch hunt, we learn from “Crime in Progress” that, in fact, Democrat Marc Elias didn’t know who Steele was and Steele knew nothing about the Clinton campaign. In many ways it was quite the inefficient conspiracy.

And so it’s worth looking at the other side of the story. “Crime in Progress” is a very good start.

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