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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After Donald Trump was elected but before he was inaugurated, BuzzFeed published a leaked document that became known as the Steele dossier - a series of memos written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele suggesting Russia had been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump and that, according to several sources, Russia had compromising information that could be used to blackmail Trump.
This dossier had been commissioned by Fusion GPS, a private research company providing research for law firms and corporations as well as opposition research for political candidates. Fusion was first hired to investigate Trump during the primary by the Republican news site The Washington Free Beacon. After Trump won the primary, the law firm representing Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee started funding Fusion's research into Trump.
My guests are the founders of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch. They're former Wall Street Journal reporters. Some of the Russians who surfaced in the Trump investigation were people Simpson and Fritsch had reported on at The Wall Street Journal while investigating Russian corruption and organized crime. Simpson and Fritsch have written a new book called "Crime In Progress" about their investigation into Trump, its impact and Republican attempts to discredit Fusion GPS and the Steele dossier.
Glenn Simpson, Peter Fritsch, welcome to FRESH AIR. What were some of the findings in your report and in the Steele dossier that you consider to be the most important early warnings of Donald Trump's ties to Russia?
PETER FRITSCH: The truth is Chris Steele came into this project about nine months in. We started looking at Donald Trump and his relationship to Russia as part of a much broader project, which was looking at Donald Trump's business career. As has been reported, we first started working for Republicans. About nine months in, we started working with Chris Steele. Now, we saw a lot in the early going that caused us to have concerns about Donald Trump's relationship with Russia.
First, we saw his relationship with Felix Sater. Felix Sater is a Russian emigre to the U.S. who was working with Donald Trump and, importantly, worked with him in the FL-Group, which developed, among other properties, the Trump Soho. You know, this is an individual who was - went to prison for slicing someone's face open with a margarita glass, who then was convicted of stock fraud - this is all in the '90s. So that caught our attention, to see him with a business card - occupying an office in Trump Tower and carrying a business card with Donald Trump's company name on it.
Then, we found a number of properties inside Trump Tower itself that were occupied by convicted and alleged organized crime figures from Russia. You know, we also just saw a pattern of investments coming into Donald Trump's properties, and to Donald Trump personally. The other sort of interesting data point in the early going was the transaction in Palm Beach involving a Russian oligarch by the name of Dmitry Rybolovlev - pardon my pronunciation. He is a potash magnate - it's a fertilizer - sort of king of Russia. He bought Donald Trump's mansion in the mid-2000s for about $95 million when it was on the market for $45 million. That was a really suspicious transaction to us. So anyway, the sum of that and just the sum of our research regarding his business led us to want to know more about Russia, which is how we started working with Christopher Steele.
GROSS: And what was Christopher Steele doing when you approached him? And who - tell them who Christopher Steele is for people who don't know.
GLENN SIMPSON: So Chris and I were introduced around 2010. And we met through some mutual friends who knew of our shared interest in Russian corruption and kleptocracy. Chris is a Russia specialist. We are real generalists at Fusion. And so when this project began moving towards Russia and we began to feel like there were some really significant unanswered questions about what Donald Trump was doing in Russia and why he seemed to be involved with so many figures from the former Soviet Union - and we began to work with the Democrats in the spring of 2016, we decided to ask Chris to help us out and to see if he could poke around in Russia, in Moscow, to try to get answers to some of those questions.
GROSS: And he had worked for British intelligence at the Russian desk, so he knew a lot about...
SIMPSON: Chris was the - the term that they use there is the lead Russianist. He essentially ran the Russia desk at headquarters in London after having served previously in Moscow around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. He is a fluent Russian speaker and reader. It's essentially his life's work.
GROSS: So just to get straight how your work has been funded - both by Republican interests and Democratic interests - just briefly explain for us the source of your funding through this whole project that you've had investigating Trump-Russia ties.
SIMPSON: In this late summer of 2015, I connected with a Republican political operative who I knew was going to probably be involved in the presidential campaign in the primaries. And I asked him if he would be interested in research on Donald Trump, and he said yes. That eventually led to us being hired formally by a newspaper in Washington called The Washington Free Beacon, which is a conservative website. And so we worked for this conservative website doing this research for about seven months.
As the primaries wound down and it became obvious that Donald Trump was going to be the nominee, they indicated to us that the project was coming to an end. And we began to think that, given what we found out about Donald Trump and the concerns that it raised, we should probably continue to do this work for the other side.
GROSS: And so who hired you from the Democrats?
FRITSCH: So we were hired eventually by Perkins Coie, a law firm, and an attorney there named Marc Elias. Marc represents both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary - the Hillary Clinton campaign at the time. He is also - and that law firm represents a lot of Democratic politicians.
GROSS: So let's get back to your work with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who was a Russia expert. And - so he compiled a series of memos that came to be known as the Steele dossier. Tell us some of the things in those memos that you think have been most important in revealing information that was validated about Russia or Russia's connections to Donald Trump.
SIMPSON: Well, I think the single most important thing that comes out of the dossier - which is really in the first memo - was that the Kremlin was planning and running an operation to elect Donald Trump the president of United States. And that it was a big operation that involved a lot of different aspects and was very deliberately designed to elect Trump and not just to sow discord in U.S. political system - although that was a secondary purpose. That was really right on target. It was an incredibly prescient observation that the U.S. government did not reach until months later. And so much of the summer of 2016 we spent trying to stand that up and raise concerns, raise alarms with other people. It's been a lot of attacks against Chris' work for being unsubstantiated, but it doesn't really get said enough that, in this one central point, he was dead right.
FRITSCH: To use a metaphor, Terry, that our - a colleague of ours likes to use, he predicted an attack on Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor attack happened. In retro - and then in hindsight, a lot of people said, well, you got the number of Zeros wrong, you got the direction they were coming in from wrong, therefore the document is somehow impugned. Now, the document was never meant to be read as a dossier; it was a series of contemporaneous intelligence reports - right? - which collectively tell that important story.
SIMPSON: There are other important aspects of these memos that have stood up quite well. They identify about a half-dozen people associated with the Trump campaign or the president in one way or another who later turned out to, in fact, be the key figures in the surreptitious relationship between Donald Trump and the Kremlin.
GROSS: What's one or two of the things in the dossier that proved not to be true?
SIMPSON: Well, as of right now, we don't have anything in the dossier that we think has been proven to be untrue. Various investigations have found that certain things couldn't be proven or disproven. The thing that people most often point to as supposedly disproven is this - a meeting between some Trump campaign officials and Russian spies in or around Prague in the late summer of 2016. That has repeatedly been denied, but one of the people who issued the most vociferous denials was the president's lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is currently serving time in prison. And he was - he sued us actually for libel, and then shortly thereafter his office was raided by the FBI.
FRITSCH: It's important remember...
GROSS: You had said that he was one of the people at that meeting.
FRITSCH: That's what the memo said.
GROSS: Right. That's what the memo said, yes. Thank you.
FRITSCH: Right. I would say it's important remember that much of the evidence of these matters lies in a foreign country, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement and certainly the reach of Robert Mueller. On the Michael Cohen Prague visit in particular, what the Mueller report actually reports is that Michael Cohen himself claims to have not been there. As Glenn said, the matter just has not been settled.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the co-founders of Fusion GPS. They're the authors of the new book "Crime In Progress: Inside The Steele Dossier And The Fusion GPS Investigation Of Donald Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of Fusion GPS and author of the new book "Crime In Progress: Inside The Steele Dossier And The Fusion GPS Investigation Of Donald Trump."
The most famous part, or infamous part, of the so-called Steele dossier, the series of memos that Christopher Steele assembled for you investigating Russia's interference in our election and Donald Trump's ties to Russia, was the so-called pee tape. And this is the tape that several sources told Christopher Steele exists. There's no confirmation that this tape exists. Explain what the pee tape is for somebody who hasn't been following it.
FRITSCH: Right. So the tape, as you put it, is a recounting of source reporting from Moscow that alleges that Donald Trump in 2013, while he was attending the Miss Universe pageant that he sponsored in collaboration with a Russian oligarch, was in his hotel suite in Moscow, at the Ritz Carlton, and a - was sent a pair of prostitutes who performed a urination show on top of the bed in the presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in - with the purpose being to defile the bed in which Barack and Michelle Obama slept in years earlier. Now...
GROSS: Yes, go ahead.
FRITSCH: It's - you mentioned several sources. We can't get into sources and methods as we know them, but we have strong confidence in the reliability and the well-placed sort of nature of these sources, and there were no fewer than seven for that particular anecdote.
SIMPSON: So obviously, this is the most famous part of the so-called dossier, and there was some internal debate at Chris Steele's firm and then subsequently our firm about what to do about this in terms of the fact that it was going to distract people from some of the other information that was in the report. In fact, the history of this has now shown that some of the denials that Donald Trump has made about this period were false. So he's vociferously denied this. Initially, he told James Comey that he didn't spend the night in the hotel that night. That turned out to not be true.
GROSS: So there was a conflict between both of you about whether to include this allegation in your report or not. I want...
FRITSCH: No, that's...
FRITSCH: That's - no. Glenn was alluding to - there was a dispute. I wouldn't call it a dispute. There was a discussion inside Orbis, the - Christopher Steele's firm, with his partner, who is also a fellow British intelligence officer or former British intelligence officer about whether to include that anecdote or not. In the end, Chris, who is the Russianist, thought it was very important to include for the sake of verisimilitude in the reporting, right? He wanted to accurately reflect what sources were saying, and he did not - and he thought it was really important to note that the Russian government could have hard evidence of compromise on a presidential candidate.
GROSS: And this was evidence that Christopher Steele feared could be used to basically blackmail Donald Trump?
SIMPSON: Correct. And in our office, we felt that this information wasn't all that significant and could only cause a lot of problems because it wasn't really something that had much application to the presidential campaign. These kinds of unconfirmable (ph) stories about someone's sexual past, it just doesn't really have much application in a political context. So we were sort of stuck with this information.
When it became apparent that there was other things going on that involved a possible conspiracy against the United States and we decided to turn this information over to the FBI, we felt that we did not want to manipulate Chris' reporting or edit it in any way because that would be a bigger problem. So we just gave them everything.
GROSS: That's why you decided to have the Steele dossier be a separate document from your findings...
FRITSCH: Yeah. We...
GROSS: ...Without you editing it at all. Like, this is what he found. This is what he heard from sources and that will stand alone.
FRITSCH: Right. It's important to point out that the decision to approach the FBI was Chris'. You know, we acceded. We deferred to him. He is the intelligence professional. We're...
GROSS: Yeah. Well, discuss that decision because this is a real turning point in your investigation and in the whole larger Russia investigation.
FRITSCH: Right. So in early July, Chris arranged to meet with a contact of his at the FBI in Europe, someone he knew from previous work. He asked us if that was a good idea. And we didn't disagree. It's important that - it's clear that this is Chris' decision as an intelligence professional. So he had that meeting in July 5 of 2016 with the FBI and read them in to some of the information he'd found in his first report.
GROSS: So unbeknownst to you, the FBI was also independently investigating Russia's interference in the election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Russia. But Christopher Steele - yes. Go ahead.
SIMPSON: Well, this is an amazing point in the story, which is that we now know - we've now pieced together the beginnings of the FBI investigation juxtaposed against the beginnings of Chris' interactions with the Justice Department and the FBI.
And it turns out that - it was almost simultaneous. But the first information to get there was not our information. It was the information about a low-level Trump campaign staffer bragging that the Russians had hacked the Democrats.
GROSS: So who was that?
FRITSCH: So there was reporting that - from Alexander Downer, who's an Australian diplomat in the U.K. who had had a meeting with George Papadopoulos, who was in the Trump campaign as a junior foreign policy aide, in which George Papadopoulos bragged about having Russian intelligence on dirt on Hillary Clinton. Alexander Downer reported that to the U.S. government, which is where - which is the foundation of the subsequent investigation called Crossfire Hurricane.
SIMPSON: And this is how investigations begin is that both the government of Australia and us reacted to the revelations that the Russians had hacked the DNC. And so, essentially, the FBI had information coming in from two different independent sources around the same time that corroborated each other to some extent. And investigations - that's actually how they get going is when information comes from more than one place. Ours came in slightly after the information from the Australians.
GROSS: You never intended the dossier to be public, as you said. And you both didn't directly go to the FBI; that was Christopher Steele who did that. But you did start approaching journalists. Why did you start approaching journalists? What did you want to tell them? What did you want them to do with the information?
SIMPSON: Initially, in the summer of 2016, we were concerned that certain people around the Trump campaign and in the Trump campaign were of questionable character. Paul Manafort was someone that we knew a lot about, that we believe had probably violated various U.S. laws and might be involved in corruption and money laundering. So we talked to reporters about him and others such as Carter Page, who seemed to be interacting with the Russians in a suspicious way on a trip to Russia.
So these are people that we talked to reporters about and we encouraged them to look into a little bit more - same with Michael Flynn. Now, as it turned out, all three people were people that needed to be investigated. And two of them have now pled guilty to crimes. So the initial conversations with reporters were about some of these characters in the Trump campaign and the Trump organization.
Later when we became more concerned that there was a Russian government attack on our country that was unprecedented in scale and scope, we tried to raise awareness with national security reporters and investigative reporters not so much to affect the outcome of the election - in fact, specifically not to affect the election - but because we thought that this was something we needed to raise awareness about because it was a huge digital Pearl Harbor against our country.
GROSS: My guests are Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of Fusion GPS. Their new book is called "Crime In Progress." We'll talk more after a break. And Justin Chang will review the new film "Knives Out." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Watch it. I was born in a crossfire hurricane. And I howled at the morning driving rain...
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of Fusion GPS, a private research company which did opposition research on candidate Donald Trump and commissioned what became known as the Steele dossier, which uncovered connections between Donald Trump and Russia and cited several sources that said Russia had a compromising video of Trump with prostitutes - a golden showers video that could be used to blackmail him. The dossier was written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was commissioned to do the research by Fusion GPS.
Simpson and Fritsch are both former Wall Street Journal reporters. Now they have a new book about their investigation into Trump and Russia called "Crime In Progress." They say their report and the Steele dossier were never intended to be made public. But the dossier was leaked and published by BuzzFeed.
When BuzzFeed actually published the dossier, you were furious and you were kind of afraid of what the consequences might be. You had put Christopher Steele in front of journalists already. So why were you so upset when the dossier was actually published by BuzzFeed?
FRITSCH: Well, we didn't put Christopher Steele before journalists in an on-the-record way. He spoke on background as a former Western intelligence official. That's the first point. You know, the second point - the publication, which was of course not our decision in - by any way, shape or form, could have compromised sources and methods. It was an unredacted document. Chris did not have any kind of a warning to prepare for its release. And it was hugely dangerous, in our view, to his source network.
SIMPSON: This has become more common knowledge now in the wake of the 2016 election that Russia - the Russian intelligence services have a overseas assassination program. But it's well-known to us - and particularly to Chris - that this is (unintelligible) is known to the intelligence services for a long time. We've seen now that they actually are willing to use chemical weapons against people in the United Kingdom.
GROSS: Refresh our memory about when BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier.
FRITSCH: BuzzFeed published a dossier on - excuse me - January 10, 2017.
GROSS: So it was after the election. It could no longer affect the outcome of the election.
SIMPSON: That's correct. But it was before the inauguration. So what we say in the book is that the person who has now admitted to leaking the dossier was apparently trying to do was to thwart the swearing-in of Trump. And he believed that if this information got out, it might lead to - somehow to Trump's inaugural being put off.
FRITSCH: The ultimate Hail Mary pass and ill-advised.
GROSS: Who was the leaker?
FRITSCH: So there was a John McCain - a person who was close to John McCain by the name of David Kramer, who's a former - worked in the State Department for human rights for many years and is a - an avowed Russia hawk. He became aware of the document via Christopher Steele and his network and his former colleagues in MI6. They met with Senator McCain at the Halifax forum, which is an international forum not unlike the Aspen Institute Forum. They decided that they needed to pursue this. David Kramer flew to London; met with Christopher Steele, who showed him the dossier. Mister - Chris was wary of giving the document to David Kramer to carry on an airplane, so he asked us to hand it to him, which Glenn did.
GROSS: Are you...
FRITSCH: For the express - sorry...
FRITSCH: ...For the express purpose of handing the document to John McCain for the purpose of approaching James Comey about it.
GROSS: So the purpose was to get the document to McCain and then to the FBI, not to leak it to the press.
FRITSCH: That's right.
GROSS: So has this aide admitted that he was the one who leaked it? Or is this...
GROSS: ...Just your theory?
SIMPSON: No. So there was a Russian cybermogul (ph) who sued BuzzFeed for libel, and David was required to testify. And he ultimately acknowledged that it was he who provided the document to BuzzFeed.
FRITSCH: And other people.
GROSS: Do you find it ironic that it was an aide of John McCain's who made the dossier public in the hopes of preventing Donald Trump from actually getting inaugurated? And it's Lindsey Graham, one of McCain's closest friends, who has been one of the leaders trying to question the Mueller report, trying to question the research that you did and supporting Donald Trump?
SIMPSON: I think it's ironic. I think it's hypocritical. And I think it's depressing that a lot of people who know better are now standing up for Donald Trump. So yes, I think - you know, the Republicans paid for the first half of our investigation, and now they're claiming it was all a Democratic hoax. It doesn't make sense.
FRITSCH: Lindsey Graham...
GROSS: Well, wait. Wait. Wait. Let's just stop right there 'cause the Republicans who paid for the first part of your investigation were people who were opposing Trump. They were Republicans, but they wanted another Republican to win the primary, not Trump.
SIMPSON: Right. So this is my point, which is that a lot of Republicans who said that Trump would be a disaster for the Republican Party and the nation are now defending Donald Trump.
FRITSCH: It's important remember that Lindsey Graham, as John McCain and others have recounted, agreed with John McCain's decision to approach James Comey with this document. Fast-forward to the moment in January - or excuse me, I can't remember; I think it was in March - where Lindsey Graham along with Senator Charles Grassley make a criminal referral to the FBI under the Department of Justice for Christopher Steele. It's an outrage.
GROSS: So let's talk about what's been happening more recently, and that's the impeachment inquiry. Republicans cited your report 32 times in the impeachment inquiry. They were saying you colluded with Russians. Why don't you describe what you heard Republicans say about you during the impeachment inquiry?
FRITSCH: The Republicans cranked up their fog machine, as they've been doing since the dossier came out, to deflect attention away from the real issue here, which is the extent to which Donald Trump was in a relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia. They have used lies and deflection to attack the messengers and, again, not transact the facts, which is of course what they're doing to the whistleblower and to any other good people who try and call the president to account.
SIMPSON: It's a fairly artful construction of an alternate reality that is channeled through various propaganda mechanisms, including Fox News, and it's not meant to be taken as true by anyone other than the minority of people who still support Donald Trump. As we have been saying in recent days, when they accuse us of cooking up a hoax to entrap and damage Donald Trump in some kind of secret operation with the Ukrainian intelligence services, they're not confused. They're deliberately lying. It's just that - it's just a made-up story designed to confuse the public.
FRITSCH: Rudolph Giuliani has gone so far as to accuse Glenn of going to Ukraine in 2016 and working with the Ukrainians to cook up the dossier. That is just a lie.
GROSS: Well, Glenn, you actually ran into Rudy Giuliani on a plane recently and told him you've never been in Ukraine.
SIMPSON: That's correct. I've never been to Ukraine. I've never been to Russia. We're getting very tired of sort of the more dramatic, deliberate lies about us, so we've decided to begin to correct the record. Rudy Giuliani also claims that we set up the infamous meeting between the Trump campaign and the Russians in June of 2016. It's well-established from multiple investigations that Rudy Giuliani is well aware of that we had nothing to do with setting that meeting.
FRITSCH: That meeting was set up by Donald Trump Jr. and Russia.
GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here, and when we come back, we'll talk about how Fusion GPS was criticized during the impeachment inquiry by Republicans. So if you're just joining us, my guests are Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of Fusion GPS. Their new book is called "Crime In Progress: Inside The Steel Dossier And The Fusion GPS Investigation Of Donald Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch. They're the co-founders of Fusion GPS and authors of the new book "Crime In Progress: Inside The Steal Dossier And The Fusion GPS Investigation Of Donald Trump."
So you started off as journalists. I mean, you were journalists for years. And then when you were both based in Brussels, Glenn, you were an investigative reporter still, and Peter, you were his editor there. Do I have that right?
SIMPSON: That's right.
GROSS: Yeah. So you were investigative - you were journalists, like, for years for The Wall Street Journal, and then you decided to form this business, Fusion GPS, and basically do investigative research for hire. And I want you to talk a little bit about the different standards being a journalist versus being research for hire. And your clients have included not only, like, you know, Republicans and Democrats but also, you know, large corporations, legal firms. So talk about the differences in the way you went about your work but also in the standards that you would use for - you know, the ethical standards.
FRITSCH: The business is designed to use journalistic methods, and so it's, essentially, in terms of standards, very similar. Newspapers talk to people. Newspapers talk to people. They don't always know whether those people are telling the truth or whether they're accurate. They report what people say. Frequently, what people say turns out to be wrong, but it's still in the newspaper. So we do very similar stuff at Fusion.
GROSS: Can we describe some of what you've been doing as opposition research?
SIMPSON: We do very little political research, actually.
GROSS: But it's even opposition research for the corporate clients that you have, isn't it?
FRITSCH: Well, I wouldn't call it opposition research. It's more a - understanding an information set, right? So there are a lot of complicated disputes in the context of lawsuits, obviously, but also influence networks, right? There's a lot of people who want to understand why their issue's, you know, moving a certain way through Washington or through the courts. What we try and do is use public records to map and explain those relationships. That really is the core of what we do.
GROSS: And does it matter who your client is? Like, if your client is a corporate client and you actually suspect that they were in the wrong, would you still represent them?
SIMPSON: It really would depend on the context. In a litigation context, you're generally working for a law firm, and so it's not really possible to prejudge a situation between who is right and who is wrong. That's the purpose of the lawsuit. I would also go back to another thing that we do - is decision support. So we help people to manage information and to parse information and to make decisions about what to do with it. So sometimes, that is corporate strategy. Sometimes, it's whether to file a lawsuit or not to file a lawsuit, whether to settle a lawsuit. There's just - a lot of decision-making, you know, relies on quality information.
FRITSCH: I mean, there's one example which, you know, we talk about in the book which maybe is useful here. We talk about, very briefly, our work for Theranos, the blood testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes which turned out to be a massive fraud. What we were actually doing for Theranos was looking at them on behalf of a law firm. We were looking at the - their competitors, Quest and LabCorp, the duopoly in lab testing. If you - if your doctor orders a lab test, you're going to one of those labs. And we were analyzing the qui tam whistleblower suits against that - against those firms and trying to understand what their business model was.
GROSS: You know, as a journalist, you're committed to just, like, finding the facts, reporting what you found and not being concerned with, you know, taking sides. In fact, you're not supposed to take sides. But, you know, when you're - you know, particularly if you're reporting for, you know, like, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, it's about, you know, being fair and being neutral in finding the facts.
But when your reporting is paid for by a particular side - Republican or Democrat - or when your reporting is paid for by a particular legal group or by a company, it's about getting information for that side. So was that a difficult transition for you to make? And do you feel like you're no longer, you know, just on the side of fact-finding and truth when you're doing that, when you have an interested party paying for information?
FRITSCH: Glenn will have a view on this, too, but quite the opposite. I mean, I think we are - we place as high a premium as we ever did on facts. You know, in the context of working for law firms or major companies, you can't report anything but facts. And sometimes you don't need just two sources to get - or anonymous sources. You need paper, and you need documentary evidence. And that has not changed in our lives at all.
SIMPSON: There's a misapprehension about what we do. We are not a PR firm, and we don't sell spin. Our clients want reliable information, and that is the business that we are in. So it really has a lot of similarities to journalism. It's not a cooked outcome. We don't sell that.
FRITSCH: If you saw one of our reports, you would mistake it for an academic paper.
GROSS: Have you ever turned down a client?
FRITSCH: Yes, we have. We've turned down many clients.
SIMPSON: The irony of the Russia affair is that it is a part of the world where we generally don't do a lot of work. Numerous clients from the former Soviet Union have approached us that we have turned away.
FRITSCH: We actually force clients to submit to our methodology, which is - you know, if you have a preconceived outcome in mind and you're looking for specifically a media outcome, we're the wrong people. You know, obviously, our peer group is - are journalists. We have a lot of friends in that business. But if you don't want to get to the bottom of, you know, a fact set, we're the wrong people for you.
GROSS: Is there any information you can share with us about what you're finding about foreign interference in the next presidential election?
SIMPSON: Well, foreign interference in our elections actually has a fairly long history. It's just not something that a lot of people know much about or focused on. In 2016, we believe at least three countries interfered in the election. Turkey was one. Israel was one. Russia was one. It's possible there were others. We expect that in 2020, we'll see that at least three or four countries are messaging over social media and using other methods to try to influence the outcome.
GROSS: Before we wrap up, I'd like to ask, is there information that you found while you were researching Trump campaign ties to Russia and Russia's interference in our election that you don't think enough attention has been paid to?
SIMPSON: Yes. One of the things that we came across ourselves that didn't really involve Chris Steele was the Russian infiltration of the National Rifle Association, which was something that I brought to the attention of the Justice Department and then later raised in my congressional testimony. And that has turned out to be a big issue, although it's still not fully investigated. Eventually, criminal charges were brought against a young Russian woman who came to the United States and befriended top officials at the NRA. The NRA...
GROSS: This was Maria Butina.
SIMPSON: And so there's a larger problem here that - the Russians appear to have infiltrated some of the affiliated Republican and conservative groups, and the NRA is the clearest example of that. We think that there is a much broader effort by the Russians to infiltrate and influence conservative organizations.
FRITSCH: The other thing that I think still is left outstanding that we spend some time talking about in the book is the extent to which Donald Trump's overseas ventures have been - have not been parsed properly either by Robert Mueller or anyone else. We've done our best to map some of the Russian influence and money coursing through projects in Panama, Azerbaijan, Toronto, et cetera. You know, someone needs to actually think about compromising that, in terms of financial compromise. And we spend some time talking about that in the book.
GROSS: I want to thank both of you for talking with us. Glenn Simpson, Peter Fritsch, thank you so much.
SIMPSON: Thank you.
FRITSCH: Thank you.
GROSS: Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch are the founders of Fusion GPS. Their new book is called "Crime In Progress." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Knives Out."
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Although best known for directing "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the writer-director Rian Johnson has long been a fan of murder mysteries. His 2005 debut "Brick" was a film noir set in a contemporary American high school. His new movie "Knives Out" is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with an ensemble that includes Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: As someone who's devoured more than his fair share of Agatha Christie, I have long been saddened by Hollywood's general neglect of the classical detective story - the kind of clever parlor trick entertainment where a murder is committed in a remote country house and suspicion falls on a closed circle of suspects. Every so often, a director will put his unique spin on the genre, as Robert Altman did with "Gosford Park" and Quentin Tarantino did with "The Hateful Eight." Kenneth Branagh is presently directing and starring in a new wave of Hercule Poirot adaptations, though his middling take on "Murder On The Orient Express" didn't leave me wondering who done it so much as, why bother?
But no filmmaker has done more to revive the spirit of the form or made it seem more rife with possibilities than Rian Johnson has with "Knives Out." This deliriously entertaining comic thriller brings together an all-star cast and an ingeniously plotted crime story whose every twist catches you by surprise. But it also does something more. It takes the genre often dismissed as creaky or cozy and uses it to say something powerful and urgent about contemporary class inequality and the moral rot at the heart of this large and obscenely wealthy family.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a best-selling mystery novelist who is already dead at the start. Someone slit his throat in the middle of the night, and it was almost certainly a member of his family, all of whom were staying at his ramshackle Victorian house for his 85th birthday party. Johnson delights in playing out the usual whodunit conventions, whether he's drawing out the piercing scream of the housekeeper who discovers Harlan's body or lining up the suspects as they're interviewed by two police detectives, played by LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan. But things really start cooking when a Southern-accented Daniel Craig shows up as Benoit Blanc, a famous private detective who is conducting his own investigation into Harlan's death. In one scene, Harlan's daughter Linda, a splendidly biting Jamie Lee Curtis, tries to find out who hired Blanc and why.
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JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Linda Drysdale) Mr. Blanc, I know who you are. I read your profile in the New Yorker, I found it delightful. I just buried my 85-year-old father who committed suicide. Why are you here?
DANIEL CRAIG: (As Benoit Blanc) I'm here at the behest of a client.
CURTIS: (As Linda Drysdale) Who?
CRAIG: (As Benoit Blanc) I cannot say, but let me assure you this. My presence will be ornamental. You will find me a respectful, quiet, passive observer of the truth.
CHANG: Nearly everyone in the family was financially dependent on Harlan. And as the actors play them, they're an amusingly loathsome, scheming bunch. Linda has a philandering husband, played by an oily Don Johnson, and a black-sheep son, Ransom, played by a cocky Chris Evans. Ransom had a combative but genuinely close relationship with his late grandfather, which is more than can be said for the other members of the family. They include Michael Shannon as Walt, who ran his father Harlan's publishing firm, and Toni Collette as Harlan's widow daughter-in-law, Joni, a social media influencer with a Goop-inspired lifestyle brand.
But the most memorable character by far and the one who emerges as the true protagonist is Marta Cabrera, Harlan's personal nurse superbly played by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas. Marta appears to have been Harlan's only true friend. She's far more heartbroken over his death than any of his relatives, who keep telling her they see her as part of the family, even though none of them can remember exactly which Latin American country she immigrated from. Blanc immediately sees her as a potential ally and enlists her help in solving the mystery, sensing that she knows more about Harlan and his family's secrets than she may be letting on.
The steady stream of laughs and wink-wink (ph) genre references in "Knives Out" might make it seem, at first, like an arch, postmodern send-up. But the movie is too well constructed, too full of clever red herrings and breathtaking surprises to be reduced to a mere spoof. This isn't the first time Rian Johnson has shown off his flair for intricate plotting, as he did in his time travel thriller "Looper" and in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." That blockbuster was attacked by some fans for, among other things, its racially diverse casting. You can't help but wonder if those bigoted reactions stung Johnson into centering his new movie around a working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrant whose competence and decency utterly shamed the wealthy, white family that employs her. The pleasures of "Knives Out" are both comfortingly familiar and surprisingly subversive. Even after the murderer's identity has been revealed, it builds to what may be the single-most satisfying closing shot I've seen this year. I won't say more, but it's a killer.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Edward Norton, who wrote, directed and stars in the new film noir "Motherless Brooklyn" based on the Jonathan Lethem novel. Norton plays a private detective with Tourette's syndrome up against powerful real estate developers in New York. Norton was inspired to make the film in part because his grandfather was an idealistic real estate developer who built a diverse community where Norton grew up. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram.
I'm Terry Gross.
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