In February, Chuck Grassley looked out his Senate office window at Washington’s cold, unforgiving winter sky, then shook his head in disgust. The seven-term Republican from Iowa and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman had hit a wall.
Spring would arrive soon and with it a torrent of questions about the young presidency of Donald Trump and exactly what happened with the November election: What was the real extent of Russian interference, and did Trump campaign officials know about it? What was the Obama administration’s role in investigating the explosive charges? Were there illegal and targeted leaks of sensitive intelligence? The accusations would fly so fast and furiously that Washington would shake.
Mr. Grassley, who has played many a role in high-stakes probes on Capitol Hill, ramped up his involvement. He believed one thread of the story needed a much more muscular tug to see what would unravel — the “dodgy dossier.”
With Congress now re-engaging its multiple investigations, the 35 pages of unsubstantiated, salacious opposition research by a former British intelligence officer that almost disrupted Mr. Trump’s campaign is getting a fresh look — and a new opportunity to create mischief.
Mr. Grassley wants a more methodical inquiry into how the dossier came to exist. With lawmakers returning to Washington from a two-week Easter break, the opportunity is before them.
The background behind the anti-Trump report — parts of which have been discredited but parts of which U.S. investigators are still working to verify and parts of which U.K. sources have partially verified — is classic Washington intrigue, political dirty tricks and the industry that has been built up to satisfy the need for dirt on one’s political opponent. Mr. Grassley’s efforts suggest that the dossier and those responsible for compiling and leaking its contents are re-emerging at the heart of the investigation.
In January, less than two weeks before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, CNN detailed that the existence of a graphic classified report, including memos written before and after the Nov. 8 election with compromising financial and personal information on the president-elect, had been shared with President Obama and Mr. Trump in private intelligence briefings.
Essentially a data dump of negative campaign research of Mr. Trump, the dossier contended that the Russian government might use the confidential details to blackmail Mr. Trump and that there were links between Russian government officials and the Trump campaign team.
It had been raising eyebrows in Washington since last summer. A handful of the city’s top-shelf politicians, intelligence chiefs and journalists claimed it had been privately circulating, but they shied away from airing the accusations because of their unverified nature. CNN also passed on publishing the contents of the dossier.
The website BuzzFeed felt no need to hold back, posting its entire contents on Jan. 10. This unleashed a media rush to judgment on the material, which included details on sexual acts, elusive real estate financing schemes and a tangled web of unidentified sources. In a press conference, Mr. Trump immediately dismissed it as “a failing pile of garbage.”
Its author also quickly surfaced as former British MI6 intelligence officer and Russia analyst Christopher Steele. Now in the private sector, Mr. Steele’s London-based Orbis Business Intelligence firm had been hired to research Mr. Trump.
The day after Mr. Trump denounced the dossier, Mr. Steele went into hiding fearing for his life. Three weeks before that, but unreported for almost a month, a former KGB chief suspected of helping Mr. Steele turned up dead in the back seat of a black Lexus in Moscow.
Battles over the dossier’s veracity have simmered ever since, sparking a furious search for Mr. Steele’s Kremlin sources. Former MI6 colleagues vigorously defended his reputation as a credible authority on the Kremlin. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said he passed the dossier to the FBI after it was passed to him.
Other Republicans were outraged and lined up to trash the document, including Trump campaign foreign policy adviser named in the dossier, Carter Page. Last week, Mr. Page told The Washington Times that the document is “completely false” and “full of lies,” especially regarding his supposed contacts with Russian officials to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“The mistakes are so laughable and humorous they’re beyond words,” Mr. Page said.
On Monday, The Washington Times reported that Mr. Trump’s attorney, a campaign volunteer and a tech company CEO, also publicly said that the parts about him in the dossier were fiction.
All the while, Mr. Grassley held back judgment. He is 83 years old and has been in the Senate since 1981. His career in Washington began in 1975 when he served in the House of Representatives. During 42 years in Washington, the Iowan has endured Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Valerie Plame and Benghazi. For him, the dossier presented a Washington-style follow-the-money angle that investigators needed to pursue. The real question remains: Who paid Mr. Steele for the material?
Fusion GPS is Washington-based research firm started in 2009 by former reporter Glenn R. Simpson. According to his LinkedIn profile, Mr. Simpson graduated from George Washington University and worked five years at Roll Call newspaper.
He then served as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for almost 14 years. In 1996, he joined forces with University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato to write the book “Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics.”
The 430-page book explores voter disgust with the American political system. A New York Times review called it “topical, muckraking, highly opinionated — and sometimes overheated.” Ironically, the review also noted that Mr. Simpson and Mr. Sabato, who equally blame Democrats and Republicans for corruption, hoped to spark enough outrage that people would push for campaign reform.
At Fusion, Mr. Simpson tended to work for Democrats. Numerous reports said the firm exploited weaknesses within Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign fundraising efforts and defended an attack accusing Planned Parenthood officials of selling aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers.
Then came Russia. Starting in 2015, according to numerous sources including Mr. Grassley’s office, Fusion became involved in Russian efforts to fight the Magnitsky Act, a law created to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009. Mr. Magnitsky served as an attorney for British-American businessman Bill Browder, who has called Mr. Simpson a “professional smear campaigner.”
In September 2015, Fusion was hired to conduct opposition research for Republicans battling Mr. Trump in the primaries. Fusion reportedly helped create a searchable database of public information on Mr. Trump, including old news stories and documents — that candidates could tap for opposition research. The New York Times reported that an unidentified wealthy Republican opposed to Mr. Trump paid for the work.
Once Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, unidentified Democratic supporters of Mrs. Clinton took over funding Fusion’s work. In June, Mr. Simpson hired Mr. Steele, who began compiling the memos that became the notorious dossier.
Mr. Grassley has a three-headed attack plan to learn more about Fusion. Late last month, he asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the firm properly registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act when it worked in 2015 to kill the Magnitsky Act.
Mr. Grassley also reached out directly to Fusion and demanded that its principals provide him with details of Mr. Steele’s hiring and who funded the opposition research behind the dossier, including any FBI involvement.
Mr. Steele and the FBI enjoy a close relationship, former British intelligence officials said, and have worked together in the investigation into international soccer’s governing body, FIFA, which triggered the resignation of its top officials, including President Sepp Blatter in June 2015.
Mr. Grassley wants to know if Fusion knew of any FBI arrangements to pay Mr. Steele.
He is also targeting the FBI directly, asking agents what they know about Mr. Steele, specifically if Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had dealings with the former British spy. In a letter from Mr. Grassley to the FBI late last month, the senator noted that Mr. McCabe’s wife received “nearly $700,000 from close Clinton associates during her campaign for Virginia state Senate” and that Mr. Grassley is concerned that “as the FBI’s second-in-command, McCabe could have significant influence over the ongoing investigation into allegations of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia as well.”
In that letter, Mr. Grassley pointedly asked if Mr. McCabe was at all involved with Mr. Steele.
The Senate probe must be thorough and methodical, Grassley aides say, because the dossier is still being quoted and used across Washington.
“When political opposition research becomes the basis for law enforcement or intelligence efforts, it raises substantial questions about the independence of law enforcement and intelligence from politics,” Mr. Grassley wrote in the March 24 letter to Fusion.
Just last week, CNN reported that the FBI partially relied on the dossier’s reporting to justify a request to place surveillance on Mr. Page. FBI Director James B. Comey, has also cited the Steele document in recent congressional briefings, officials told CNN.
Fusion officials have declined to answer Mr. Grassley’s questions. Earlier this month, lawyers from the Washington firm Cunningham, Levy, Muse LLP, which represents Fusion, cited confidentiality agreements as a reason not to divulge who paid for Mr. Steele’s work.
When Mr. Grassley’s staff followed up and asked if Fusion’s clients were willing to waive the confidentiality agreements, the firm’s lawyers replied that the clients have opted not to be known.