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Opinion: How a senior DOJ official helped Dem researchers on Trump-Russia case
By John Solomon
Hundreds of pages of previously unreported emails and memos provide the clearest evidence yet that a research firm, hired by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to find dirt on and defeat Donald Trump, worked early and often with the FBI, a Department of Justice (DOJ) official and the intelligence community during the 2016 presidential election and the early days of Trump's presidency.
Fusion GPS's work and its involvement with several FBI officials have been well reported.
But a close review of these new documents shows just how closely Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, who reported to Obama-era Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, maintained contact with Fusion - and, in particular, its primary source, former British spy Christopher Steele - before, during and after the election.
Yates was fired by President Trump over an unrelated political dispute. Ohr was demoted recently.
Ohr's own notes, emails and text messages show he communicated extensively with Steele and with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Those documents have been turned over in recent weeks to investigative bodies in Congress and the DOJ, but not reviewed outside the investigative ranks until now.
They show Ohr had contact with Steele in the days just before the FBI opened its Trump-Russia probe in summer 2016, and then engaged Steele as a "confidential human source" assisting in that probe.
They also confirm that Ohr later became a critical conduit of continuing information from Steele after the FBI ended the Brit's role as an informant.
"B, doubtless a sad and crazy day for you re- SY," Steele texted Ohr on Jan. 31, 2017, referencing President Trump's firing of Sally Yates for insubordination.
Steele's FBI relationship had been terminated about three months earlier. The bureau concluded on Nov. 1, 2016, that he leaked information to the news media and was "not suitable for use" as a confidential source, memos show.
The FBI specifically instructed Steele that he could no longer "operate to obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI," those memos show.
Yet, Steele asked Ohr in the Jan. 31 text exchange if he could continue to help feed information to the FBI: "Just want to check you are OK, still in the situ and able to help locally as discussed, along with your Bureau colleagues."
"I'm still here and able to help as discussed," Ohr texted back. "I'll let you know if that changes."
Steele replied, "If you end up out though, I really need another (bureau?) contact point/number who is briefed. We can't allow our guy to be forced to go back home. It would be disastrous." Investigators are trying to determine who Steele was referring to.
FBI officials now admit they continued to receive information from Steele through Ohr, identifying more than a half-dozen times its agents interviewed Ohr in late 2016 and 2017, to learn what Steele was saying.
That continued reliance on Steele after his termination is certain to raise interest in Congress about whether the FBI broke its own rules.
But the memos also raise questions about Ohr's and the Justice Department's roles in the origins of building a counterintelligence case against the Republican presidential nominee, based heavily on opposition research funded by his rival's campaign, the DNC and the DNC's main law firm, Perkins Coie.
Some of the more tantalizing Ohr contacts occurred in the days when Steele made his first contacts with the FBI in summer 2016 about the Russia matter.
"There is something separate I wanted to discuss with you informally and separately. It concerns our favourite business tycoon!" Steele wrote Ohr on July 1, 2016, in an apparent reference to Trump.
That overture came just four days before Steele walked into the FBI office in Rome with still-unproven allegations that Trump had an improper relationship with Russia, including possible efforts to hijack the presidential election.
Ohr scheduled a call with Steele over Skype a few days later. But then the two men met in Washington on July 30, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel.
Ohr brought his wife, Nellie, who was working at Fusion GPS on the Trump-Russia research project.
"Great to see you and Nellie this morning Bruce," Steele wrote shortly after their breakfast meeting. "Let's keep in touch on the substantive issues/s (sic). Glenn is happy to speak to you on this if it would help."
That meeting occurred exactly one day before FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok formally opened an investigation, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane, into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Moscow to steal the election.
At the time, the case was based mostly on an Australian diplomat's tip that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos appeared to know in advance that the Russians possessed information involving Hillary Clinton before hacked documents were released on WikiLeaks.
Soon, the case expanded to include allegations that another Trump adviser, Carter Page, might have ties to Russia - an uncorroborated allegation from Fusion GPS's research now known as the "Steele dossier."
Calendar notations and handwritten notes indicate Ohr followed up on Steele's offer and met with Simpson on Aug. 22, 2016. Ohr's notes indicate Simpson identified several "possible intermediaries" between the Trump campaign and Russia.
One was identified as a "longtime associate of Trump" who "put together several real estate deals for Russian investigators to purchase Trump properties." Another was a Russian apparently tied to Carter Page, Ohr's note of his Simpson contact indicated.
Steele offered Ohr many other theories over their contacts, including a now widely discredited one that the Russian Alfa Bank had a computer server "as a link" to the Trump campaign, Ohr's notes show.
Though much of Steele's information remained uncorroborated, the FBI nonetheless took the extraordinary step in October 2016 of seeking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor Carter Page during the final days of the election, based mostly on Steele's dossier. The warrant was renewed at least three times, but Carter Page was never charged.
Ohr's connections to Steele are significant because at least one of the FISA warrants was approved by Ohr's boss, Yates.
By early November 2016, Steele was terminated for unauthorized media contacts - and the FBI was turning to Ohr as a back channel to Steele.
Ohr's notes suggest he met Nov. 21, 2016, with FBI officials that included Strzok, then-FBI attorney Lisa Page and another agent. Strzok and Lisa Page have become the poster children for Republicans who believe the FBI abused its authority by investigating Trump on flimsy evidence. FBI records confirm an interview with Ohr around that time.
Ohr's notes from that meeting indicate that FBI officials told him they "may go back to Chris" - an apparent reference to Steele - just 20 days after dismissing him.
In all, Ohr's notes, emails and texts identify more than 60 contacts with Steele and/or Simpson, some dating to 2002 in London. But the vast majority occurred during the 2016-2017 timeframe that gave birth to one of the most controversial counterintelligence probes in recent American history.
Most importantly, the new memos make clear that Ohr, a man whose name was barely uttered during the first 18 months of the scandal, may have played a critical role in stitching together a Democratic opposition research project and the top echelons of the FBI and DOJ.
Representatives for the Justice Department and FBI did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment. A message left on the cell phone for Bruce and Nellie Ohr, seeking comment, was not returned.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill's executive vice president for video.
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