Partisan tension surrounding the congressional probes of President Trump entered a new phase Friday, as House Republican leaders revived allegations of FBI misconduct and accused Democrats of coaching the president’s former lawyer ahead of his recent testimony.
The developments came after House Democrats made sweeping requests for documents and interviews with members of Trump’s inner circle, efforts derided as overreach by Republicans, whose latest moves suggest they will more actively challenge the Democratic-led probes going forward.
Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, on Friday released the transcript from an August interview with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who was a conduit between the FBI and the author of a controversial dossier — partially funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee — alleging that Trump had personal and financial ties in Russia. Though the transcript contained no major surprises, Collins insisted that what Ohr divulged goes to the heart of GOP concerns that the FBI relied on the unverified dossier to secure surveillance warrants against Trump campaign affiliates, an accusation federal law enforcement officials have denied.
“I find great problematic issues when you have an unverified, salacious dossier used in a FISA application,” Collins told reporters, using shorthand for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs such surveillance applications made to secret courts. “Nobody — Republican, Democrat, independent — should want this to happen. This should not be happening.”
Democrats characterized the transcript’s release as an effort to divert attention from their probes of Trump.
“I thought that wild goose chase was over, so that’s a blast from the past,” said senior Judiciary Committee Democrat Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), calling the release “a completely irrelevant distraction from the massive corruption that is surfacing in the Trump administration and the White House.”
As Collins took fresh aim at the dossier, other leading Republicans — including Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (Ohio) — questioned whether House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and his staff influenced the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer who, in a series of interviews on Capitol Hill, accused the president of coverups, bank fraud and cultivating Russian ties.
In a letter to Cohen’s lawyers, Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) on Friday demanded an accounting of all pre-interview contacts Cohen had with Schiff or his staff, and an explanation of Schiff and Cohen’s “conflicting” public accounts of those meetings.
Eleanor McManus, a representative for Cohen, said Cohen met with Schiff or his representatives four times before his official interviews, for a total of more than 10 hours. But she defended the meetings as “commonly done and appropriate,” as well as necessary so Cohen could reread his prior testimony to Congress, which included false statements and precipitated his guilty plea late last year.
“No answers to any questions were discussed, only topics,” McManus said.
Despite lingering credibility concerns about Cohen, who will soon go to prison for lying to Congress and committing financial crimes, Democrats have used his testimony as a launchpad for expanding their investigations of Trump.
The House Intelligence Committee plans to follow Cohen’s testimony with a public hearing this month for Felix Sater, a former business associate of the president’s who is connected to Trump’s Moscow tower project.
The House Judiciary Committee sent 81 document requests this week to people and entities connected to Trump, some of whom Cohen named during his recent testimony. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), warned that more would come as lawmakers investigate allegations of obstruction of justice, public corruption and abuse of power.
As Democrats go after new witnesses, Republicans plan to release additional transcripts from the probe they ran last year, Collins said, noting that he elected to release Ohr’s transcript without redactions despite the Justice Department having recommended that certain parts of it be kept from public view.
Ohr’s attorney, Joshua Berman, declined to comment.
To Republicans, Ohr is a central figure in an unresolved inquiry into federal law enforcement’s conduct, though Democrats say those efforts are meant to undermine the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Ohr had several meetings with former British intelligence agent and dossier author Christopher Steele, talks that continued even after the FBI terminated its formal relationship with Steele. That caught the attention of Republicans, who believe that the dossier was biased because it was partially funded by the Clinton campaign and the DNC.
The transcript shows that Ohr had doubts about the reliability of Steele’s information because of his Russian sources and financial sponsors, even as he was transmitting it to law enforcement officials, but he did not think it was improper to pass it along. “When I receive information from Chris Steele, I’m not going to sit on it. I’ve got to give it to the FBI,” the transcript shows Ohr said.
GOP interest in Ohr was further piqued by the fact that his wife, Russia historian Nellie Ohr, briefly worked for Fusion GPS, a firm later linked to Steele and his work.
Ohr told lawmakers that he disclosed his wife’s job to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in 2016 , to make officials aware of “any possible bias,” according to the transcript. But he was reassigned at the Justice Department, he told lawmakers, because he had not given his superiors, including then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, “timely notice” of his talks with Steele — and because officials did not want him in a position where he could have contact with the White House.
Ohr’s involvement intersected with other key figures , including McCabe and former FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who came under intense scrutiny after it was discovered that they had exchanged anti-Trump text messages while involved with the investigation of Clinton’s email practices during her tenure as secretary of state.
Ohr met in the fall of 2016 with McCabe and Page, and then McCabe and Strzok, to describe information he had heard from Steele, according to the transcript. They connected him with Joe Pientka, a lead agent investigating Russian interference in the election, who would later interview former national security adviser Michael Flynn about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Ohr passed on to Pientka what he learned from Steele and, in one case, a memory stick of Russian history information his wife had done for Fusion GPS, the transcript indicates. Pientka filed formal interview reports, known as 302s, after some of those conversations with Ohr.
Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.