“The big story that the Fake News Media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy A.G. Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly. It was Fusion GPS that hired Steele to write the phony & discredited Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary & the DNC.”
— Trump, in a tweet, Aug. 11
Who is Bruce Ohr?
Ohr exists in a netherworld — a subject of fascination in right-leaning media, barely a mention in mainstream media. His name last appeared in the pages of The Washington Post in February, and yet President Trump keeps tweeting about him. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in announcing that Trump had revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan, listed the names of other people who also faced revocation of clearances.
Ohr’s name was on the list.
We have previously tried to explain the roles of former British agent Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Ohr is less of a central player, but as a reader service, we will try to disentangle the president’s tweets and explain what is known – and unknown – about Ohr’s actions. We will not offer a Pinocchio rating.
First, let’s take a look at the key players.
Fusion GPS was started by a group of former Wall Street Journal reporters, notably investigative reporter Glenn R. Simpson. Fusion in 2015 began investigating Trump under a contract with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website financially supported by GOP megadonor Paul Singer. That assignment ended once Trump was on track to win the nomination. But in April 2016, Fusion was hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to keep funding the research. (Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained the firm.)
Steele, a former British intelligence officer with ties to the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community, was hired by Fusion to examine Trump’s ties in Russia. Steele was the author of the “dossier” alleging ties between Trump and Russia; the dossier is actually several memos, based on conversations with Russian sources, that were written between June and December of 2016.
The dossier is a frequent target of presidential derision, but the probe into the Trump campaign originally was sparked by a separate matter that Steele never wrote about — a tip from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, appeared to know Russia had obtained damaging emails on the Democrats. (Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents.)
Ohr was associate deputy attorney general until late 2017, when the DOJ learned of his contacts with Steele. He briefly continued as head of Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) but then lost that job, too. It’s unclear what role he plays now at the DOJ. The agency declined to comment, except to point to a statement by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
“Mr. Ohr is a career employee of the department. He was there when I arrived. To my knowledge, he wasn't working on the Russia matter,” Rosenstein told the House Intelligence Committee on June 28. “When we learned of the relevant information, we arranged to transfer Mr. Ohr to a different office.”
Ohr’s wife, Nellie (Trump spelled her name wrong), is a consultant and Russia specialist who has done some work for Fusion GPS. (Bruce Ohr’s 278e financial disclosure form lists her as an “independent contractor.”) The majority report of the House Intelligence Committee said she was “employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump.” A court filing by Simpson said Fusion GPS contracted with her “to help our company with its research and analysis of Mr. Trump.”
Here’s where it gets a bit strange. Bruce Ohr and Steele knew each other, apparently because of organized-crime issues. Simpson knew Ohr as well, from organized-crime conferences, according to his testimony before Congress.
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Simpson said Steele suggested he speak to Ohr after the “very surprising” victory by Trump.
“It was not clear to us whether anyone at a high level of government was aware of the information that Chris had gathered and provided to the FBI,” Simpson said. “Chris suggested I give some information to Bruce, give him the background to all this.”
Of course, we now know that the FBI earlier had relied in part on information provided by Steele to successfully obtain a court order to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page. But Steele and Simpson did not know that — and in fact, the FBI had cut off contact with Steele in November 2016 after learning he had been speaking to the media about his findings.
It turned out also that Steele and Ohr had been in contact before the election, though it’s unclear how much Ohr knew about Steele’s work for Fusion. But on July 1, 2016, shortly after Steele filed the first report for Fusion and only a few days before he met with an FBI agent to discuss his findings, Steele wrote to Ohr: "There is something separate I wanted to discuss with you informally and separately. It concerns our favorite business tycoon!”
It’s unclear which tycoon Steele was talking about. The two men had had a continuing discussion about Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in 2016, even before Steele got the assignment from Fusion GPS, according to an Aug. 8 report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner. (More on that below.) But it’s possible this was a reference to Trump.
On July 30, Steele met Bruce and Nellie Ohr for breakfast in Washington. And Bruce Ohr apparently spoke to Simpson on Aug. 22, according to phone logs reviewed by York.
The House majority report pointedly notes: “In September 2016, Steele admitted to Ohr his feelings against then candidate Trump when Steele said he ‘was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.’"
On Aug. 8, John Solomon of the Hill published portions of Ohr’s notes on his Dec. 10, 2016, conversation with Simpson, which have not been publicly released. Solomon described much of the conversation as second- or third-hand gossip. One puzzling notation by Ohr: “Much of the collection about the Trump campaign ties to Russia comes from a former Russian intelligence officer (? not entirely clear) who lives in the U.S.”
Ohr then went to a friend in the FBI to relay what he had learned. On Jan. 31, 2017, according to documents reviewed by Solomon, Steele texted Ohr: “Just want to check you are OK, still in the situ and able to help locally as discussed, along with your Bureau colleagues.”
Ohr texted back: “I’m still here and able to help as discussed I’ll let you know if that changes.”
The FBI ended up interviewing Ohr about his interactions with Steele and detailing the information in FD-302 reports. A July 6 letter by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) listed 12 such investigative reports, from interviews conducted from Nov. 22, 2016, to May 15, 2017. He has asked that the 302s be declassified.
Some have speculated that the FBI used the Ohr channel as a way to continue to get information from Steele even though the relationship had been officially terminated. But it is not clear what Ohr relayed to the FBI — and whether the FBI even used the information.
Regarding Ohr, the Democratic rebuttal to the majority report said that it “overstates the significance of his interactions with Steele.”
Finally, the Deripaska angle.
Deripaska is an aluminum magnate close to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman now on trial for fraud. When Manafort joined the Trump campaign, he owed Deripaska nearly $20 million, according to legal complaints filed by Deripaska’s lawyers. Manafort offered to give Deripaska private briefings once he took the campaign role.
The emails reviewed by York but not publicly released indicate Steele was concerned about Deripaska’s legal status — Deripaska at the time was seeking a visa to the United States — and regularly communicated with Ohr about the issue. “Steele said he was ‘circulating some recent sensitive Orbis reporting’ on Deripaska that suggested Deripaska was not a ‘tool’ of the Kremlin,” York wrote.
The communications suggest Deripaska may have been a possible source for Steele for material in the dossier on Trump. Marcy Wheeler, an independent national security writer, has noted that this means that Deripaska — who “virtually owned Donald Trump’s campaign manager during most of the time Steele was digging dirt on Trump” — was in a position to play both sides against each other.
The Pinocchio Test
As yet, there is little evidence to support Trump’s contention that Ohr helped Steele find dirt on Trump. He appears to be only a messenger. At this point, it’s unclear what Ohr even told his friend at the FBI about Steele’s information and whether any of that reporting ended up influencing the Russia investigation. There is also, as yet, no evidence that senior Justice Department officials were even aware of Ohr’s sideline communications with Steele about the Russian probe.
Trump’s mention of Ohr’s wife appears gratuitous. Her role in the matter, as yet, appears minimal.
All of this may amount to a molehill, not a mountain, but the various connections are certainly intriguing.
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