Twenty-one years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a popular academic pundit issued a stark warning: The proliferation of opposition research in U.S. political campaigns was debasing American elections.
The alarm came in the form of a 339-page book, “Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics.” The journalist was Glenn R. Simpson, a respected investigative reporter; the professor was University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. Their book detailed the “dirty tricks” that, in the two decades since, have put America’s two major political parties at each other’s throats and led to widespread disillusionment among voters.
Railing against “sleaze” in campaigns, political consultancies, and Washington journalism, the authors deplored opposition research as a “gateway to acts that are not just offensive but duplicitous and sometimes illegal.” The proliferation of mud-slinging, they wrote, had turned campaigns once fought over real issues into a “debate over irrelevancies” -- and led to blackmail and other crimes.
These dark arts may not be noble, but they are lucrative. By the next decade, Glenn Simpson would leave journalism to become one of Washington’s most notorious collectors and peddlers of the type of sleaze he once decried. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Simpson commissioned and shopped around the lurid Trump-Russia dossier now central to investigations of President Trump’s ties to Russia.
The dossier pulled Simpson into the Washington spotlight last month, when he testified in a 10-hour closed-door session with the Senate Judiciary Committee about the activities of his firm, Fusion GPS. Questions about who hired Simpson’s firm, how a range of scurrilous charges found their way into the dossier and the FBI’s involvement have swirled through Washington investigations of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Trump loyalists and Republicans suggest the establishment media have given Fusion GPS a pass for its role in the Trump-Russia affair. And the forgotten “Dirty Little Secrets” scarcely figures, if at all, in that coverage, although it has been hiding in plain sight on Amazon, selling recently for as little as $1.89.
Insight into how the co-author of a good-government tome could become the snoop who shopped the Trump dossier around Washington is not easy to come by. Journalist associates of Simpson contacted by RealClearInvestigations claimed not to have spoken with him in years. Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who produced the dossier for GPS, downplayed it as “raw” and “unsolicited” intelligence in a United Kingdom court proceeding. A think tank affiliated with Simpson has quietly removed evidence of his fellowship. A former Wall Street Journal colleague who co-founded a consultancy with Simpson won’t discuss him at all. Sabato, not known for his reticence, is reluctant to discuss his writing partner.
“He has had no contact with Glenn Simpson since their book was released and promoted in 1996,” Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, wrote in response to requests for comment from Sabato. “He didn't even know where Simpson was located or what he was working on until this controversy arose. He has nothing to add that is vaguely relevant.”
Alan Murray, the former Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal who, in his foreword for "Dirty Little Secrets," called Simpson "one of the most respected investigative journalists in Washington," declined to comment through a spokeswoman for Time Inc., where he is currently chief content officer.
“Dirty Little Secrets” is a substantial piece of work, boasting more than 200 interviews and delving deeply into the shenanigans of Clinton-era political figures – activities that seem almost quaint in light of the accusations against Fusion GPS. The book’s tone is relentlessly strait-laced, taking particular umbrage at the then-nascent industry of opposition research and other efforts to “spread lies, rumors and innuendo” about candidates.
“Most opposition researchers claim to pay attention mostly to legislative votes and floor statements to see if their opponent’s words jibe with his or her record,” Simpson and Sabato wrote. “Without question, many abide strictly by this unwritten code. Yet many of their brethren also examine highly personal information, with the result that issues often surface that are only marginally related, or even completely unrelated, to the office being contested.”
More than 70 pages are devoted to painting then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a “House-wrecker” whose operations represent a low point in hardball politics. This section is liberally salted with quotes from Leon Trotsky, apparently aimed at likening Gingrich to the early Soviet revolutionary. Several chapters argue that oppo research, push-polling, and other forms of negative campaigning prevent effective governing. A full chapter is devoted to vote fraud, a problem widely minimized on the left today; a subchapter on California is titled "The Golden State for Vote Fraud."
The actions decried in “Dirty Little Secrets” seem pretty tame compared to what its co-author did after hanging out his own oppo research shingle. Fusion GPS was reportedly first retained by a “Never Trump” Republican to gather compromising Russia-related dirt on candidate Trump. After Trump sewed up the Republican presidential nomination, that donor source dried up. However, the lucrative funding was reportedly continued by Democratic interests, whom Simpson refuses to identify. While the GOP primaries wound down, Fusion GPS retained the British consultancy Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. in June 2016, according to former spy Steele’s testimony to the British court. It was Steele who procured the document’s most sensational claims about Trump – involving kinky sex with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.
Old associates, who unanimously praised Simpson’s work for the Journal, were at a loss to explain how this high-minded journalist ended up where he is today. But investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson tags Simpson as representative of a trend in her new book, “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote.” She places Simpson among a cadre of former reporters who have transferred their skills from the cash-strapped world of journalism to the lucrative vocation of political skullduggery.
In her 2016 book, “The Intimidation Game,” Simpson’s former Wall Street Journal colleague Kimberley Strassel reported that Simpson participated in what she described as Obama campaign efforts in 2012 to retaliate against and tar a donor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Strassel, a conservative opinion columnist, more recently has voiced suspicions that Democratic senators investigating the Trump-Russia affair are protecting Fusion GPS to keep the public’s focus on Russia and not their own party, noting that “Mr. Simpson is tight with Democrats.”
In his previous profession, the meticulous Simpson would have sneered at the Russian dossier, which failed to stand up to even cursory scrutiny. It asserted that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met with Kremlin officials in Prague last August. But Cohen produced credible evidence he’d never been to Prague in his life. The document’s repeated misspelling of the name of the largest privately owned commercial bank in Russia hardly inspired confidence in the dossier’s unsubstantiated claim that Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russia's state oil company, offered illegal cash payoffs to Trump associates. Implausible too is the claim that Trump had been offered nearly 20 percent of a multi-billion-dollar Russian company.
In promoting the dossier, Fusion GPS appears to have gone through the roster of reputable publications before settling on BuzzFeed, which published it in full in January.
Nevertheless, the dossier has contributed to the collusion cloud that hangs over Trump, prompting the Justice Department’s appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel as well as Senate and House inquiries. The House Intelligence Committee this month subpoenaed the Federal Bureau of Investigation over documents related to the dossier. The FBI has been criticized by conservative media for its reported use of the dossier’s claims and sources.
Simpson did not respond directly to inquiries, and Fusion GPS is not located at the Washington address listed for the company. A call to one of Simpson’s home phone numbers went unanswered and another ended with someone on the other end of the line hanging up. A company spokeswoman declined to comment but sent a link to a favorable assessment of the dossier published at justsecurity.org. That article does not mention Simpson or Fusion GPS by name. Simpson attorney Joshua A. Levy also had no comment.
Simpson’s journalistic career ended in 2009, when he and Wall Street Journal colleague Sue Schmidt, with considerable fanfare, left the paper to form a company called SNS Global, whose clients included a deposed prince of the United Arab Emirates. According to Schmidt, the company dissolved in 2010, and she refused to discuss Simpson.
“I am not part of this story,” Schmidt said. “I don’t want you to drag me into it.”
Simpson went on to found Fusion GPS with partners Peter Fritsch and Thomas Catan, who did not respond to inquiries. That firm had greater success – the Russian dossier reportedly brought a million-dollar payday for Fusion GPS – but its methods have brought condemnation.
“I haven’t read his book, but Glenn Simpson is the definition of sleazy opposition research,” said William Browder, a hedge fund manager who campaigns for the Global Magnitsky Act, a sanctions law aimed at certain Russians after the 2009 death in custody of his lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.
Browder testified publicly to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July that Simpson was hired by Russian opponents of the law to smear Browder and his associates. Simpson used a variety of weapons, Browder said in an interview, including making stuff up. “In their campaign against us, they weren’t able to find any compromising materials,” he said, “so they invented claims.”
The episode suggests Fusion’s adaptability to its paying clients -- whether Russian interests advancing the Kremlin’s aims, or Democrats willing to finance smears portraying Russia as a malign force.
Like the Russian dossier, Fusion GPS’s campaign to overturn or weaken the Magnitsky Act has yielded minimal results. The act was signed into law in 2012, and President Trump announced stronger sanctions under the law earlier this month. Browder testified about Simpson before Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Judiciary Committee in July. So did Thor Halvorssen, president and CEO of New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who said he came into Simpson’s sights when he pursued a power plant swindle involving a Barbados-based company and the Venezuelan government.
“The bulk of Glenn Simpson’s clients are criminal entities,” Halvorssen told RealClearInvestigations. “Fusion GPS is hired to destroy whistle-blowers and to block law enforcement by tampering with potential witnesses.”
Political consultants quoted in “Dirty Little Secrets “are not much more complimentary.
“Simpson apparently reached serious conclusions based on leads or conjecture – he got involved with dirt I have stayed away from,” said Gary Maloney, president of Virginia-based consulting firm Jackson-Alvarez Group. “That doesn’t mean I don’t listen when somebody has a story to tell. But what Simpson seems to have done, at such a high level, is very dangerous.”
Maloney gave an interview for the 1996 book, but he came in for heavy criticism in “Dirty Little Secrets” as a “hired gun” who deserved censure for what now looks like some pretty mild opposition research: At the request of a campaign manager, he called the ex-wife of a candidate’s business partner to verify an allegation of heavy drinking by the opponent.
“That’s the most celebrated nothing event in my career,” Maloney said. “If anything, my reputation was enhanced by those attacks – and the opponent ended up hiring me after the primary!”
Another consultant interviewed by Sabato and Simpson speculated that the change has occurred in the political climate rather than in Simpson himself.
“Often there’s no filter,” said Thomas “Doc” Sweitzer, a Democratic consultant and founder of the Campaign Group in Philadelphia. “A lot of people in the business of getting people elected have crazy ideas. If you can match a crazy idea with money, you can find an operative or consultant and get something done. People will do a lot of crazy things for a million dollars.”
Halvorssen dismissed the idea that there is any contradiction between the sleaze described in the book and Simpson’s current line of work.
“This all makes perfect sense,” Halvorssen said. “Glenn Simpson was involved in writing the book about all the things that are wrong with the system, then he set about perfecting those things and becoming a millionaire as a result. He has put skills learned at the Wall Street Journal at the use of thieves, criminals, knaves and fraudsters all over the world.”