1973 deja vu: cover up, prosecutor, tapes that could sink a Presidency

by Diane Francis

(FILES) This combo shows a file photo (L) taken on November 30, 2017 of US President Donald Trump smiling during the 95th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, DC; and a file picture (R) released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 1, 2018 showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivering a New Year's speech at an undisclosed location. US President Donald Trump's notoriously threatening rhetoric towards nuclear-armed North Korea -- which has drawn comparisons with Richard Nixon's "madman theory" of diplomacy -- may deserve some credit for bringing Pyongyang to talks, analysts have said. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / NICHOLAS KAMM AND - / South Korea OUT / To go with NKorea-SKorea-US-diplomacy-politics, FOCUS by Hwang Sunghee  ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

In the page-turner called the Trump Presidency, few weeks have matched the most recent one. First there was a book describing Trump’s personality disorders, and then there was the release of a revealing Senate Judiciary Committee transcript about Russian connections that Republicans were suppressing.

Both point to the fact that it’s looking like 1973 again: A burglary, a cover up, special prosecutor, unsavory characters, and the possible existence of tapes that could sink a president.

The newly released transcript contains the testimony of Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal investigator reporter and co-founder of Washington’s “intelligence gathering” research company called Fusion GPS.

In 2016, his firm was hired to gather information about Donald Trump, and Simpson farmed out the “Russian” research to former British MI5 Russian expert Christopher Steele. Steele sent a series of memos to Fusion and Simpson said he concluded that “something bigger was going on”. Stories about Russian hackers began surfacing and “Trump said weird things about the Russians and Putin,” said Simpson.

Steele told Simpson he was concerned that Trump had been “compromised” and could be “blackmailed” as a result of videotapes of certain activities in Russian hotel rooms. If true, this constituted a national security issue and Steele, a former British intelligence officer, said he was going to disclose everything to the FBI.

Simpson, an expert on the former Soviet Union, said blackmail is common because “the Russians have cameras in all luxury hotel rooms.”

Steele met the FBI in mid-September and was told that they had another informant, “an internal Trump campaign source”, helping them.

It is political rhetoric to call the dossier phony… there is nothing phoney about it

Glenn Simpson

Then in October, Simpson said Steele abruptly severed his link with the FBI after its director James Comey told Congress he was re-opening the e-mail probe into Hillary Clinton.

“A lot of us were concerned about what the heck was going on at the FBI?” said Simpson. Suspicions were that the FBI was being manipulated by Trump supporters.

The Steele dossier was finally published after the election, in January 2017, creating a firestorm. Four months later, Trump fired James Comey, and the furor in Congress led to the appointment of special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Ever since he has continued the probe into Trump and the Russians that Fusion GPS, Steele, and the FBI had started many months before.

Glenn Simpson, co-founder of the research firm Fusion GPS. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

It’s obvious why the Republicans on the committee wanted the testimony to remain confidential. Simpson argued that Republicans were trying to obscure what happened in 2016, and California Senator Diane Feinstein released it to bolster the FBI’s credibility.

“It was obvious in September 2016 there was a crime in progress,” Simpson told the Senators. “This was espionage. They (the Russians) were hacking into the DNC and think tanks. That’s a computer crime. There were further indications of extensive conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It is political rhetoric to call the dossier phony… there is nothing phony about it.”

But the difference between 1973 and now is that the burglars, possibly Russian hackers, will never be caught. And the tapes, if they exist in this case, remain likely under lock and key in the Kremlin, or an oligarch’s safety deposit box, because they represent priceless leverage over those filmed.

But the story’s not over. Nixon ended up firing his attorney general, and deputy attorney general for refusing to fire their special prosecutor, but got his solicitor general to do the deed. Months later, he was charged with obstruction of justice, a majority of the public polled supported impeachment, and Nixon had to resign nine months after the firings.

So the pages will keep turning.


First published Financial Post Jan. 12, 2017