Friday, January 19, 2018

House intelligence committee releases Glenn Simpson Trump-dossier testimony

January 19, 2018 by  
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The House intelligence committee released 184-pages of sworn testimony on Thursday by Glenn Simpson, the former Wall Street Journal reporter whose opposition research into Donald Trump spawned a controversial dossier that ultimately was handed to the FBI.

It was the second release of Congressional testimony by Simpson, and it contained no Earth-shattering revelations, but Simpson went into much greater detail with the House committee than he did with the Senate judiciary committee about his research into Trump’s alleged business dealings with Russians and organized crime figures, in passages that at times read like a work of pulp fiction.

“As we pieced together the early years of his biography, it seemed as if during the early part of his career he had connections to a lot of Italian mafia figures, and then gradually during the 90s became associated with Russian mafia figures,” Simpson said at one point, under oath, about the 45th president of the United States.

Related: Nunes subpoenaed firm behind Trump dossier without telling Democrats

At another point, he was asked by a Republican, Tom Rooney of Florida, whether he could “conclusively say as fact that the Russian government and the Trump campaign were colluding with each other to beat Hillary Clinton.”

Simpson replied, “I think that the evidence that has developed over the last year, since President Trump took office, is that there is a well-established pattern of surreptitious contacts … that supports the broad allegation of some sort of an undisclosed political or financial relationship between the Trump Organization and people in Russia.”

However, Simpson said, he was not prepared to say whether that added up to a “criminal conspiracy.”

Simpson’s research firm, Fusion GPS, had been hired to get information on Trump during the primaries by a Republican media firm, Washington Free Beacon. When Trump became the Republican nominee, the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic Party began picking up the tab for the Fusion research. Simpson hired his friend Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative and Russia expert, to gather information from his sources in Russia.

That part of the story is well known by now: Steele’s sources told him the Russian government was working with Trump to try to help him beat Clinton, including providing hacked emails. That unproven allegation is among those being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

But Simpson also delves into some of his own research on Trump’s business dealings, allegations familiar to reporters but not the general public. For example, Simpson testified that he believes Trump’s golf courses in Scotland and Ireland may have been financed with illicit Russian money, something media organizations investigated — but reached no conclusion about — during the campaign.

President Trump’s son Eric told golf reporter James Dodson in 2014 that the family’s company got much of its funding to build its golf courses from Russia, according to an interview Dodson gave last year to Boston public radio station WBUR. But Eric Trump then went on Twitter and denied saying that.

Simpson said he poured over the financial statements of the golf courses.

“And they don’t, on their face, show Russian involvement, but what they do show is enormous amounts of capital flowing into these projects from unknown sources and — or at least on paper it says it’s from the Trump Organization, but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars.”

He added, “And these golf courses are just, you know, they’re sinks. They don’t actually make any money. So, you know, if you’re familiar with Donald Trump’s finances and the litigation over whether he’s really a billionaire, you know, there’s good reason to believe he doesn’t have enough money to do this and that he would have had to have outside financial support for these things.”

Rooney later commented on that as an example of where the evidence wasn’t persuasive. But he seemed to acknowledge it was a question whose answer was worth knowing.

“That’s exactly my point, is that if we knew that Donald Trump was working with the Russian mafia to fund Doonbeg in Ireland, then there’s no way he would be President,” Rooney said, according to the transcript. “So, I mean, that’s why it’s so fascinating.”

California’s Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked, “If the Russians were laundering money through Trump golf courses or Trump condos, would the Russian government be aware of this? Would they be either knowing or active participants potentially in this?”

Related: FBI knew of possible Trump-Russia collusion, according to Glenn Simpson’s Senate testimony

Simpson replied, “The Russian mafia is essentially under the dominion of the Russian government and Russian intelligence services …. And so basically everyone in Russia works for Putin now.”

His team also observed patterns in real estate dealings involving Trump properties — purchases by unknown entities that were quickly re-sold for a loss — that “were suggestive of money laundering.”

He singled out projects in Panama and Toronto where Russian mafia figures were listed as buyers, which he said “smacks of fraud.”

“Those both got a lot of fraud associated with them, a lot of fraud allegations, a lot of activity that I would say smacks of fraud, and a lot of Russian mafia figures listed as buyers who may or may not have actually put money into it,” Simpson said.

Simpson said at first it seemed to him that Trump’s own lawyers would step in to prevent Trump from pursuing real estate deals in Russia, on the basis that transactions could trigger the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

“What I later came to believe was that he was, in fact, developing different kinds of business relationships with the Russians,” he told the committee. “He’d found other ways to profit from his relationship with that.”

Simpson described in detail why he began relaying his findings to reporters in the fall of 2016, just before the November election. Steele had gone to the FBI in July with his findings, but he didn’t perceive that the bureau was doing very much.

Simpson said he was shocked and angry when FBI Director James Comey said publicly he was reopening the Clinton email investigation in October 2016, just weeks before the presidential election.

“I was sitting on this piece of knowledge, which was that, in fact, the FBI was investigating the Trump organization for possibly having illegal dealings with the Government of Russia,” Simpson said. “We decided that if James Corney wasn’t going to tell people about this investigation that, you know, he had violated the rules, and we would only be fair if the world knew that both candidates were under FBI investigation.“

Simpson declined to discuss his dealings with the media, but at least one reporter, David Corn of Mother Jones, wrote a story before the election after meeting with Steele.

Simpson also asserted that the Russian government had “infiltrated “ the National Rifle Association, which spent more than $400 million in the 2016 election, according to public records. The NRA supports mainly Republicans.

“It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA, and there is more than one explanation for why,” he said in the testimony. “But I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations. And they targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA. And so there is a Russian banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader named Alexander Torshin who is a life member of the NRA. And we spent a lot of time investigating Mr. Torshin. And he is well known to Spanish law enforcement for money laundering activity…”

NBC News has previously reported that Torshin sought a meeting with Trump, and ended up at an an NRA dinner with Donald Trump Jr.

Simpson also mentioned a Russian NRA member named Maria Butina, who he says “started hanging around the Trump transition after the election.”

“The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians,” said Simpson. “And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”

An NRA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Efforts to reach Torshin and Butina were unsuccessful.

In response to Republican questioning, Simpson also defended the credibility of Steele’s dossier, saying much of it has been verified. He also went further to present the committee with new information that hadn’t been included in the original dossier.

“I haven’t seen anything that has contradicted anything in the memos to date,” he said in the November interview. “”Chris [Steele] was a reliable provider of information that turned out to be reliable. … He was a Boy Scout.”

House approves bill to keep government open as Senate Democrats take heat for threatening to block it

January 19, 2018 by  
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The House passed a short-term extension of government funding late Thursday after Republican leaders, with help from President Trump, cobbled together enough GOP votes to overcome an internal revolt.

Still, the possibility of a federal shutdown moved closer to a certainty after Senate Democrats rallied against the GOP proposal, announcing they would not lend their votes to a bill that did not reflect their priorities on immigration, government spending and other issues.

By Thursday evening, nine Senate Democrats who had voted for a prior spending measure in December said they would not support the latest proposed four-week extension, joining 30 other Democrats and at least two Senate Republicans — and leaving the bill short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

As a result, Republican leaders — long on the defensive against claims that they were failing to govern — appeared emboldened as they sought to cast the Democrats as the obstacle to a compromise to keep critical government functions operating.

“My Democratic colleagues’ demands on illegal immigration, at the behest of their far-left base, have crowded out all other important business,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday night. “And now they are threatening to crowd out the needs of veterans, military families, opioid treatment centers and every other American who relies on the federal government — all over illegal immigration.”

Who gets sent home if the government shuts down? View Graphic Who gets sent home if the government shuts down?

Senators of both parties voted to open debate on the House bill late Thursday, but Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats remained opposed to the measure and proposed an spending extension that would last just a few days to allow talks on a broader agreement to continue.

“We have to sit down together and solve this, with the president or without,” he said.

Republican leaders rejected that suggestion. They did not lay out a Plan B to pursue if the House bill is ultimately rejected, except to finger Democrats for a shutdown.

“I ask the American people to understand this: The only people in the way of keeping the government open are Senate Democrats,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday night. “Whether there is a government shutdown or not is entirely up to them.”

Senate GOP leaders prepared to force Democrats into a series of uncomfortable votes, aimed at splitting their ranks by pitting moderates from states that Trump won against party leaders and the handful of outspoken liberals considering a run for the presidency.

For one, Republicans attached a long-term extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and delays to several unpopular health-care taxes. The bill does not include protections for “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children or who overstayed their visas as children, a top Democratic priority.

That represented an election-year bid by the GOP to cast the spending vote as, in part, a choice between poor children and undocumented immigrants. Ryan, McConnell, and other Republicans also sought to highlight the potential erosion to military readiness that could result from a shutdown.

Emboldened Democratic leaders, meanwhile, rallied lawmakers for a showdown on what they believe is favorable ground, fighting on behalf of popular policies against an unpopular president who has had a brutal week of news coverage. As Thursday wore on, undecided senators steadily stepped forward to say that they would oppose the Republican measure — risking GOP political attacks and angry constituents.

Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrats who represent tens of thousands of federal employees who stand to be furloughed during a shutdown, said they could not vote for a bill that did not include relief for dreamers, disaster funding, opioid treatment funding and more — echoing the demands of Democratic leaders.

“These issues are not going away and need to be addressed immediately,” they said in a joint statement that also criticized Trump: “He has to decide whether he wants to be President and engage in necessary compromise, or continue offering commentary from the sidelines.”

Trump fired back at Democrats during a trip to Coraopolis, Pa., saying that they’re pushing for a shutdown to distract voters from the GOP’s recent tax legislation. “That is not a good subject for them, the tax cuts,” Trump said.

The late-night showdown capped a long, tense day on Capitol Hill that began with a flurry of tweets from Trump that doubled down on his demands for an expensive border wall and accused Democrats of snubbing the military. Another tweet, however, seemed to upend the Republican strategy for avoiding a shutdown and contradict his administration’s stated policy position — suggesting that the children’s health program ought not to be attached to a temporary spending bill.

Republican lawmakers and aides, who were already pressed to secure enough GOP votes to get the bill through the House, scrambled to decipher Trump’s intentions. Much as he had to do a week ago after Trump tweeted about an intelligence bill, Ryan got on the phone with the president to clarify matters, and hours later, the White House confirmed that Trump indeed supported the bill.

The tweets inflamed frustrations in both parties over what they characterized as an all-too-often uncooperative president.

“We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “This has turned into an s-show for no good reason.”

Schumer called Trump and his administration “agents of chaos” who have foiled attempts to reach a bipartisan agreement on immigration, which remained the most salient sticking point Thursday.

“The one thing standing in our way is the unrelenting flow of chaos from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Schumer said. “It has reduced the Republicans to shambles. We barely know who to negotiate with.”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders were having trouble smoothing out a wrinkle in their plans to blame a shutdown on Democrats: Hard-line House conservatives demanded concessions in return for their votes, casting doubt on whether the funding patch would even reach the Senate.

All but a few House Democrats said they would not support the bill without an immigration or long-term budget deal.

“If we can’t agree, your party has the majority in the House and the Senate to pass your own funding resolution. But that will be a bill we cannot support,” 171 of 193 House Democrats wrote in a letter to Ryan on Thursday.

While Ryan worked the House floor during an afternoon vote series, trying to lock down votes for the patch, leaders of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus tried to persuade Republicans to withhold their votes.

“I promise you he doesn’t have the votes,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), heading to a closed-door Freedom Caucus meeting, where Trump called in to try to win over restive conservatives.

Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) then went into Ryan’s office, where they hashed out a deal with Republican leaders to secure future votes on measures that would increase defense spending and tighten immigration laws. With that accord in place, the House voted 230 to 197 to pass the legislation. Only six Democrats broke ranks to support it.

Senators strategized through the day on how to turn the clash to their advantage — retreating into party lunches to plan for a showdown that could stretch into the weekend or beyond.

Reflecting the election-year stakes, aides to McConnell told senior staffers that he was intent on muscling the bill through the upper chamber and putting pressure on Democrats to vote for it, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

“Let’s bring the House bill over and have a quick vote and make the Democrats up in 2018 figure out what they want to do,” the person said of the meeting.

Ten Democrats are seeking reelection in states that voted for Trump in 2016, and Republicans believe that they can force them into tough votes that would either force a rift in the Democratic ranks or provide powerful fodder for political attacks later in the year.

Democrats expressed confidence that they would come out on top in the public-opinion battle over who would shoulder the blame for a shutdown — citing broad public sympathy for dreamers, political winds blowing against Republicans and Trump’s approach to bipartisan negotiations.

Last week, he rejected an immigration compromise in an Oval Office meeting where he referred to poor nations as “shithole countries,” driving days of public criticism.

“I think their argument falls apart because of last week in the Oval Office, because of their inability to even get a [temporary funding bill] out of the House in a timely fashion without making concessions to the Freedom Caucus,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Even as a shutdown grew more likely, some senators hoped to find a path away from it. Some senators discussed the possibility of passing one- or two-day extensions of government funding to avoid a shutdown while lawmakers continue to negotiate.

But Republican leaders did not immediately embrace the idea, and it was unclear how it would work for the House, which is scheduled to be out of session next week.

Top leaders of both parties continued meeting Thursday to seek an immigration compromise, but no agreement appeared to be in sight. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), leaving a meeting with other deputy leaders, rejected the idea that a deal to protect dreamers could be concluded by Friday evening at midnight. “No, no,” he told reporters.

The government shutdown causing employee furloughs has never occurred under unified party control of Congress and the White House.

The Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep national parks and monuments open despite a shutdown as a way to blunt public anger, and while the military would not cease to operate, troops would not be paid unless Congress specifically authorizes it.

The last shutdown, in 2013, lasted for 16 days as Republicans tried unsuccessfully to force changes to the Affordable Care Act. On Jan. 30, Trump is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address.

Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey, Sean Sullivan, John Wagner and Elise Viebeck contributed.