by Margot Cleveland · March 11, 2019
On Friday, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, released the transcript of the House’s August 2018 interview of Department of Justice lawyer Bruce Ohr.
Ohr’s name is familiar to those following the Spygate scandal: His wife, Nellie Ohr, worked for opposition research and dissemination firm Fusion GPS. The couple also met with former British spy Christopher Steele the day before the FBI launched the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Donald Trump presidential campaign. After the FBI fired Steele and instructed him to no longer “operate to obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI,” Ohr served as a conduit to keep passing Steele’s “intel” to the FBI.
The 268-page Ohr transcript provides some clarity, some comfort, but also more concerns over the handling of the Russia investigation. Here’s what we have learned from Ohr’s testimony.
1. Steele and Simpson Didn’t Conspire with Ohr, They Played Him
On their face, the simple facts put Ohr dead center in the deep state’s efforts to undo Trump’s election. But the transcript tells a different story. Rather than Ohr teaming with Steele and Simpson and the disgraced or fired FBI crew of Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page, Ohr’s testimony convincingly casts him as the stooge.
As Ohr testified, he knew Steele professionally from Steele’s time as an MI6 agent, having first met the former spy in 2007 at a meeting in London on Russian organized crime. Ohr was also acquainted with Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson and others who “from time to time” would give him “information about Russian oligarchs and other Russian organized crime figures, and then [Ohr] would pass that to the FBI, or introduce people to the FBI.”
So when Steele asked to meet with Ohr while in DC in late July 2016, and Simpson wanted to meet the following month, Ohr agreed. Ohr took the “intel” seriously, even though the former spy was desperate to keep Trump out of the White House, because, as Ohr put it, Steele “had a good track record,” and “his information has generally been pretty good.” Steele and Simpson knew this and used Ohr to feed the Democratic-funded opposition research to the FBI.
Steele also used his acquaintance with Ohr to push for a visa for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch banned from the United States for suspicion of ties to organized crime. Over the years, Steele and Ohr had discussed Deripaska, and Ohr identified Deripaska—not Trump—as the unnamed “favorite business tycoon” Steele referenced in a July 2016 email.
Earlier that year, Steele had emailed Ohr to tell him Deripaska had been granted a visa, adding “as far as I’m concerned, this is good news all round although as before, it would be helpful if you could monitor it and let me know if any complications arise,” he wrote. Ohr responded that “to the extent I can I will keep an eye on the situation.” However, in his testimony Ohr claimed he did want Deripaska to come to the United States.
Steele, though, played off his relationship with Ohr and suggested that the United States might have an opportunity to interview Deripaska. And at Steele’s July 30, 2016 meeting with Ohr, Steele claimed that Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, “had entered into some kind of business deal with Oleg Deripaska, had stolen a larger amount of money from Oleg Deripaska.”
Given their past professional relationship, Ohr thought Steele had told him about Deripaska, “in case we wanted to do something,” and to let him “know that there might be an opportunity to interview Oleg Deripaska” about Russia. But text messages released last month raise a more concerning possibility: That Steele worked for Deripaska.
As Lee Smith reported at Tablet Magazine, recently released text messages showed that DC lobbyist Adam Waldman, whose clients include Deripaska, engaged in several back-and-forths with Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In a March 16, 2017, text, Waldman told Warner that “Chris Steele asked me to call you.”
Waldman’s history lobbying on behalf of Deripaska, Waldman’s connection to Steele, and Steele’s communications with Ohr led Sen. Chuck Grassley to send a letter last month to Deripaska’s London-based attorney, inquiring whether Steele has worked for or on behalf of Deripaska or businesses associated with him.
Notwithstanding Steele’s apparent attempts to use his relationship with Ohr to the benefit of Deripaska, Ohr’s testimony indicates that the DOJ lawyer had nothing to do with these lobbying efforts. In fact, when asked whether he knew that “the FBI actually helped Mr. Deripaska figure out how to get here officially” by traveling as a business delegate to the United Nations, Ohr merely stated he was aware “the FBI spoke with Mr. Deripaska on other occasions.” But Ohr denied knowing the FBI had interviewed Deripaska in September 2016.
2. Ohr May Not Have Been Complicit, But He Should Have Spoken Up and Stepped Aside
While Ohr’s recently released testimony seemingly places the DOJ lawyer on the side of unwittingly aiding Steele and Simpson’s efforts to feed the FBI salacious and false information about Trump, Ohr still holds some blame. Ohr knew at some point—when, exactly, is another question—that people connected to Hillary Clinton were funding Steele’s research.
Ohr also knew Fusion GPS was paying his wife, Nellie, to conduct related research. Yet Ohr fed Steele and Simpson’s “intel” to the FBI, including a thumb drive of information provided by Simpson. He also gave the FBI a thumb drive of his wife’s research.
Even if Ohr had previously shared intel from Steele or others with the FBI, under these extraordinary circumstances, he should have spoken up and stepped aside. Ohr definitely should not have continued to serve as a conduit to the FBI after the FBI terminated Steele on November 1, 2016, and directed Steele not “to obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI.” Yet from early November 2016 until November 2017, Ohr received and passed on more than a dozen communiques from Steele.
Ohr, however, failed to inform his superiors that he was receiving information from Steele. In fact, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not know until October 2017 that Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS. Two months later, Ohr lost his title as associate deputy attorney because “he had not given them timely notice of [his] conversations with Chris Steele.”
Ohr explained that he understood that to mean that he hadn’t told Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates or other officials in the Office of Deputy Attorney General that he was receiving information from Steele and passing it on to the FBI. Then in January 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein removed Ohr from his position as director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) because they did not want him having contact with the White House.
3. Ohr Wasn’t The Only One Who Kept Quiet Who Shouldn’t Have
While Ohr did not inform his superiors at the DOJ that he was serving as a conduit between Steele and the FBI, many knew of Ohr’s role as an intermediary for Steele and Simpson, including the FBI deputy director McCabe. Ohr also relayed Steele and Simpson’s “intel” to Andrew Weissmann, then the head of the Fraud Section of the DOJ, and now a member of Robert Mueller’s special counsel team, and Bruce Swartz and Zainab Ahmad, of the DOJ’s International Affairs in the Criminal Division.
Then, after the FBI terminated Steele, Strzok and Lisa Page introduced Ohr to FBI Agent Joe Pientka, because, as Ohr put it, “the FBI knew I was continuing to get contacted by Chris Steele and they had given me an agent . . . to forward the information.” Ohr also testified that in May 2017, the FBI directed Ohr to see if Steele would be willing to meet with the agents again.
This May 2017 request came right before Rosenstein appointed Mueller special counsel, which, as former FBI director James Comey’s testimony made clear, was anticipated. Although Ohr did not know whether the effort to reengage Steele came from the FBI or Mueller, Steele apparently believed he would be working with Mueller’s team, as demonstrated by a June text to Ohr expressing frustration at how “long this re-engagement with Mueller and the investigation is taking.” It does not appear that the FBI ever re-upped Steele as a confidential human source, but Ohr’s testimony established that sometime in 2017, Steele met with somebody from the FBI.
4. Steele Continued to Feed Ohr Information until November 2017
Steele also continued to feed Ohr information on Trump and Russia. It has long been known that Steele fed Ohr intel on at least 12 occasions since his November 2016 firing, until May 2017. Ohr’s testimony, however, revealed for the first time that Steele continued to provide Ohr with information until November 2017, which Ohr relayed to the FBI. Yet the FBI did not provide the Senate with any FBI 302 interview summary forms for any of those interviews with Ohr.
Whether the FBI created 302 interview summaries for those interviews is unclear, but either way it is troubling because, through May 2017, the FBI created 302 summaries every time agents spoke with Ohr. What changed?
The most obvious answer: In May 2017, Mueller was appointed special counsel. Further, in these later interviews, Ohr spoke with another agent—not Pientka, although Ohr testified that the agents he talked to were not connected to Mueller’s team.
5. Ohr’s Testimony Adds to the Case of FISA Abuse
Ohr’s testimony further cemented the case of FISA abuse. Throughout his testimony, Ohr stressed that the intel from Steele and Simpson was raw and needed to be vetted. Ohr added that he didn’t know the identity of Steele’s sources and tried to be clear when he provided the information to the FBI that he didn’t know how reliable it was. Ohr also testified one has “to be careful about all information relating to Russia,” and explained that the information would need to be corroborated before seeking a FISA warrant.
Ohr noted that he conveyed to the FBI Steele’s bias and desperation to keep Trump out of the Oval Office because, as Ohr explained, that was important for the agents to know. Yet the DOJ and FBI did not include information concerning Steele’s anti-Trump bias in the applications they filed with the FISA court seeking a court order to surveil former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page.
The FISA abuse may have extended much farther, too. The questioning of Ohr hints to this possibility, with one congressman asking whether Ohr was “involved in any of the FISA applications—were you involved in any of the other FISA applications related to the Trump-Russia collusion investigation?” Ohr responded no, but the query presumes the DOJ sought more than one FISA warrant.
6. A Stunning Lack of Interest in Ohr
Friday’s transcript also revealed that, as of August 2018, no one from the special counsel team had interviewed Ohr. Ohr also testified that he had not spoken with U.S. Attorney John Huber, who was charged with investigating potential irregularities in the handling of the Russia investigation.
The inspector general’s office of the Department of Justice did, however, approach Ohr in July 2018 concerning his contact with Steele. Ohr noted that he is fully cooperating with the request for information and expects to talk to the IG, but hasn’t been interviewed yet.
7. When Did Ohr Tell The FBI Who Hired Fusion GPS?
Ohr’s testimony cleared up several questions, but raised others. For instance, in one line of questioning, Ohr stated “my understanding is that Fusion GPS was hired by private individuals to look into possible contacts between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy then asked Ohr who had hired Fusion GPS. Ohr responded: “I did not know at the time,” but added that since then “it sounds like, from the paper, that there were a couple of different people that were paying Fusion GPS to do this at different times. My understanding is that some of these people were connected to the Clinton campaign in some way. I don’t know the—I don’t recall the names.”
Later during Ohr’s testimony, however, Ohr added that when he provided the information from Steele to the FBI, he made clear “These guys were hired by somebody relating to—who’s related to the Clinton campaign.” Ohr stressed that he told the bureau of that fact because he wanted the FBI to be aware of any possible bias as they evaluated the information.
But how could Ohr have told the FBI that the Clinton campaign was funding Steele’s research if he only learned that fact later from the newspapers?
8. Ohr’s Testimony Contradicted Simpson’s
Another conflicted created from Ohr’s testimony concerned his meetings with Fusion GPS’s Simpson. Ohr testified that “Simpson and I spoke in August of 2016. I met with him, and he provided some information on possible intermediaries between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign.” Ohr later added that that meeting occurred on August 22, 2016.
Ohr also stated that he met again with Simpson in December 2016, at which time Simpson provided him a memory stick of additional information regarding the contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign. During that December meeting, Ohr reported that Simpson said he had urged Steele to contact the media about the dossier contents and Ohr relayed that information to the FBI. (Yet the FBI wanted to reengage Steele!)
But Simpson testified under oath before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on November 14, 2017, that he had not spoken with anyone from either the FBI or the Department of Justice until after the election. Simpson stated that sometime after Thanksgiving of 2016, at Steele’s suggestion, he spoke with Ohr.
It is difficult to fathom that Simpson misremembered the timing of his first meeting with Ohr, given that Simpson claimed that “the context of this is that it was after the election,” and that “a very surprising thing had happened, which is that Donald Trump had won.”
9. Were Steele and Simpson Also Peddling Info about George Papadopoulos?
Ohr’s testimony concerning conversations with Steele and Simpson about “possible intermediaries between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign” raised additional questions. When pushed on whom exactly Steele and Simpson mentioned, Ohr noted that “there were many names mentioned over a period of time,” but that Sergei Millian, Michael Cohen, and Manafort were definitely some of the individuals whose names came up.
Ohr then added that “one of the things—again, I don’t remember if it was Glenn Simpson or Chris Steele that mentioned this—talked about—I’m going to get the names wrong, but somebody associated with the Trump campaign having advance knowledge of when information about the Clinton campaign that had been stolen and hacked, when it was going to be leaked.”
While Ohr did not recall the name of the individual, this description fits Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos’ supposed role in the launch of Crossfire Hurricane. Yet the FBI has maintained that it learned of Papadopoulos’ supposed pre-knowledge of the hack from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. Ohr’s testimony is the first to connect Steele or Simpson to a tip about Papadoupolos.
10. The FBI had Portions of the Steele Dossier Before Launching the Probe
Another significant revelation from Ohr’s testimony concerns the timing of the FBI’s receipt of the Steele dossier. Ranking intelligence committee Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff has long maintained that “Steele’s reporting did not reach the counterintelligence team investigating Russia at FBI headquarters until mid-September 2016,” but Ohr told the Senate committee that, during his July 30, 2016 meeting with Steele, Steele stated that he had provided two reports to the FBI. Steele informed Ohr he had provided those reports to FBI Agent Mike Gaeta.
While Ohr testified that Steele did not provide him a copy of his early memorandums, shortly after meeting with Steele, Ohr informed McCabe of the details of his first meeting with Steele, including Steele’s claim that “he had information that a former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, had stated to someone—I didn’t know who—that they had Donald Trump over a barrel.”
Ohr further testified that Steele “mentioned that Carter Page had met with certain high-level Russian officials when he was in Moscow.” “And the third item he mentioned,” according to Ohr, “was that Paul Hauser, who was an attorney working for Oleg Depriaska, had information about Paul Manafort, that Paul Manafort had entered into some kind of business deal with Oleg Deripaska, had stolen a larger amount of money from Oleg Deripaska.”
Thus, contrary to Schiff’s claim, the FBI knew of Steele’s reporting long before mid-September 2016. Schiff was likely dissembling by speaking of the knowledge of the “counterintelligence team investigating Russia at FBI headquarters.” But others clearly knew.
Further, from Ohr’s testimony it appears that Steele’s FBI handler was not located at the FBI headquarters in DC. Specifically, Ohr testified that he did not “know who was officially his handler,” but that “one of the people he was talking with who may have been his handler was Special Agent Mike Gaeta.” Then, when a congressman noted that he was under the impression that one of the handlers for Steele was a New York assigned agent, Ohr responded that Gaeta was from the New York office, even though Gaeta worked as an attaché out of Rome.
This testimony connected up with Ohr’s other testimony concerning when the FBI opened Steele as an FBI source. Ohr noted that he didn’t recall the specific year Steele was opened as a source, but that he thought it was following a meeting that Ohr attended with Steele and Gaeta some years ago.
11. Devin Nunes Spoke the Truth about Bruce Ohr. Adam Schiff, Not So Much
Last year, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued dueling memos about the Russia investigation. The release of Ohr’s testimony backs up then-chair Devin Nunes’ memo. Nunes’ memo explained that, after the FBI fired Steele as a source, he continued to feed Ohr intel, with the FBI interviewing Ohr to document the communications with Steele. Ohr confirmed that that is exactly what occurred.
Ohr’s testimony also refuted Schiff’s Democrat’s response memo. In that memo, Schiff called Nunes’ “reference to Bruce Ohr misleading,” stating that the Republican “misleads about the timeframe of Ohr’s communications with the FBI.” Schiff then claimed Ohr informed the FBI of the information Steele had shared with him in late November 2016—weeks after the election, and more than a month after the court approved the initial FISA application.
But as his just-released testimony made clear, Ohr contacted McCabe shortly after his July 30, 2016, meeting with Steele, and conveyed the details of that tête-à-tête to McCabe. Steele continued to provide Ohr with information on Trump. Ohr then passed those details on to Strzok and Lisa Page. The occurred well before Steele’s firing and the first FISA court order.
Ohr’s testimony has helped to clear up this dispute and others, but unfortunately there are many more questions left unanswered.
The Federalist · by Margot Cleveland · March 11, 2019