It’s an interesting if largely academic question, but it’s not the gamechanger that Eric Felten suggests it is. By December 2016, a month after Donald Trump’s election, the FBI found itself in the middle of a furious effort to determine whether Christopher Steele’s dossier on Trump had reliable intelligence on his ties to Moscow. A new find by Judicial Watch in a FOIA demand shows that Steele’s direct customer for the dossier, Fusion GPS’ Glenn Simpson, passed on some non-specific dirt to the bureau. The Trump campaign was attempting to silence a former employee who knew all about Trump’s Russia connections — and that employee was “possibly” Rick Wilson.
On Dec. 12, 2016, the FBI was informed of a new, specific claim from Glenn Simpson, Steele’s patron at opposition research outfit Fusion GPS — a tip with the whiff of a smoking gun: “A former Trump campaign official, possibly Rick Wilson, was talking about some of the Trump ties to Russia and the Trump Campaign tried to sue him for violating his non-disclosure agreement.”
What a remarkable break for the bureau. If true, a Trump insider, with closely guarded secrets to tell, could have provided agents with firsthand evidence of collusion with Russia. So, did the FBI hurry to chase down the one person most able to verify the claim – Rick Wilson himself, a veteran political strategist and Republican operative?
It did not. “Nope. Not a word,” Wilson told RealClearInvestigations when asked whether he ever heard from the bureau. Asked why Wilson was never contacted, bureau spokeswoman Carol Cratty replied, “The FBI has no comment.”
Why didn’t the FBI contact Wilson? For one thing, Wilson never did any work for Trump in the first place and was certainly not a “Trump insider” in December 2016. I confirmed that the old-fashioned way, by asking Rick directly. “At no point have I worked for Trump in any capacity,” he replied to me by Twitter DM when I asked whether he’d worked for Trump or ever signed an NDA. It’s curious that Felten didn’t clarify that at the time he got Wilson’s comment.
Wilson would have been a strange resource for the FBI anyway, which they likely already knew. He had been openly hostile to Trump since at least 2015, as the Tampa Bay Times noted in January 2018, and was willing to tell anyone and everyone exactly what he thought of the Republican nominee. Wilson did do some work for Evan McMullin in the 2016 cycle, which tends to show just how unhappy Wilson was with Trump. Even if Wilson did have an NDA with Trump, it seems very, very doubtful that it would have stopped him from exposing that kind of dirt on Trump early enough to keep him from getting the nomination, let alone to help McMullin in his independent bid.
Even if Simpson had someone else in mind, Felten still makes a category error or two in this logical progression. The first one is conflating Steele with Simpson, the latter of whom was apparently the source for this information. A credibility issue with Simpson wouldn’t have affected the FBI’s assessment of Steele, whose work they knew independently of Fusion GPS. The Wilson tip might have led to some serious questions about Fusion GPS’ credibility, but that would have been separate from Steele.
The second category error is similar to the first. The FBI was assessing the credibility of Steele’s sources, plural, rather than just Steele alone, who was already familiar to them. They had Steele’s dossier but needed to connect the dots themselves to determine independently whether the sources were credible. As Felten accurately recalls, the stories were very strange, and in retrospect very possibly disinformation intended to undermine confidence in the election. That need was three steps removed from Wilson or whoever was Simpson’s proposed source. One has little or nothing to do with the other.
In the end, of course, the whole thing proved to be a massive faceplant for the FBI for plenty of reasons. There’s no real logic to the idea that a phone call to Rick Wilson would have made that obvious in December 2016, or at least any more obvious than it should have been all along. Felten offers an interesting thought experiment here today, but it just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.