By John Solomon
A memory stick quietly exchanged in a coffee shop.
An admission of a “Hail Mary” leak.
An unmistakable effort to push the Russia investigation closer to Donald Trump’s inner circle with uncorroborated tales.
Those are just some of the highlights from the day that Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson — paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to find dirt on her GOP rival — met secretly with a top Justice Department official, right after Trump won the 2016 election.
And all of it was captured in the official’s handwritten notes — a contemporaneous record that intelligence professionals tell me exposes the flaws plaguing the early Russia collusion case.
For example, Simpson told then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr during the Dec. 10, 2016, meeting in a Washington coffee shop that he believed Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, was the “go-between from Russia to the Trump campaign.”
Yet, Simpson allegedly acknowledged that most of the information Fusion GPS and British intelligence operative Christopher Steele developed did not come from sources inside Moscow. “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 scribbled in his notes.
In those notes, Ohr repeatedly misspells Simpson’s first name as “Glen.”
Cohen has emphatically and repeatedly denied any role in connecting Russia to the Trump campaign. His lawyer, Lanny Davis, declined comment Thursday.
Simpson admitted in sworn testimony last year to the House Intelligence Committee that he had contact with Ohr after Trump’s election victory. But Ohr’s notes provide the first detailed public account of what the two men actually discussed.
Congressional investigators now are scouring them for evidence that Simpson and Steele had influence over the Russia probe, even after Steele was dismissed as an FBI informant in November 2016. Investigators want to know if any players in the Russia probe gave Congress false testimony.
One notation that stands out is Simpson’s account that he asked Steele to talk with Mother Jones reporter David Corn about their muckraking on Trump and Russia in the final days of the election. At the time, Steele still worked as an FBI source.
Corn’s Oct. 31, 2016, story was one of the most definitive to allege possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, creating an important talking point for Democrats in the final days of the campaign.
“Glen asked Chris to speak to the Mother Jones reporter. It was Glen’s Hail Mary attempt,” Ohr wrote.
When Simpson testified before Congress, he said he and Steele acted out of a sense of duty. “For him it was professional obligations. I mean, for both of us it was citizenship. You know, people report crimes all the time,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In his House testimony, though, he conceded not knowing if what he and Steele dug up amounted to a crime: “At the time that we — you know, that Chris decided to take this to the FBI, I wasn’t convinced of the facts of anything in terms of — I wasn’t convinced that there was a specific crime that occurred.”
So, congressional investigators want to know why — if Simpson acted purely on the basis of civic duty — he and Steele went to the press shortly before Election Day with allegations before the FBI completed its work.
Simpson’s lawyer, Josh Levy, did not return a call seeking comment.
Much of the other information attributed to Simpson that December day, according to Ohr’s notes, involved admittedly uncorroborated allegations — such as claims that a computer server in a Russian-owned bank was secretly transmitting messages to the Trump campaign, or that the NRA was secretly taking money from a Russian official. Many of the claims eventually made their way into news reports.
Ohr made clear he took possession of some evidence from Simpson, writing: “Glen gave me a memory stick.”
Early on, Ohr’s notes detail, the conversation focused on a theory apparently offered by Simpson that revolving Trump team members — former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, followed by informal adviser Carter Page, then Cohen — forged a secret channel with Moscow to hijack the election.
All three men long have been cited in the Russia investigation; each denies any coordination with Russia. But Ohr’s notes are the first to quote Simpson as suggesting the three essentially were shark-tooth spies who replaced each other in a secret plot.
“He identified Michael Cohen, a lawyer in Brooklyn w. Russian (Brighton Beach) clients, as the go-between from Russia to the Trump campaign who replaced Manafort and Carter Page,” Ohr’s notes read, quoting Simpson’s alleged narrative.
The notes suggest guilt by association, citing Cohen’s wife and suggesting one of Cohen’s in-laws had real estate dealings in Moscow “with ties to the Kremlin.”
“Cohen may have attended a meeting in Prague, possibly in September, about this,” Ohr quoted Simpson as saying — a claim that became public a month later, in January 2017, when BuzzFeed published a version of Steele’s uncorroborated dossier.
Cohen’s lawyers have rebutted every mention of their client in the dossier, pointedly noting he has never been to Prague.
Cohen, now under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, has hinted he may have information damaging to Trump. But special counsel Robert Mueller has signaled he’s not currently interested in Cohen, letting U.S. attorneys in Manhattan take the first crack at his case.
Two days after Ohr’s meeting with Simpson, the senior Justice Department official met with the FBI and submitted to an interview about what he had learned.
I shared the Ohr notes I obtained to career intelligence professionals with years of experience analyzing data, sorting the reliable from the garbage.
All had the same reaction: The information, on face value, has the lowest level of credibility. It was second- or third-hand, they noted, and couched with lots of caveats like “may,” “possibly” and “others disagree.”
The alleged Simpson statement that he went to the media as a “Hail Mary” stood out to those professionals as an act of desperation that they would see as weighing against the motives of an intelligence source.
A couple of the experts flagged that most of what Simpson allegedly told Ohr was not from Moscow — where the alleged plot was supposed to be based — but from a reported Russian in the United States who later seemed to disappear, according to Ohr’s notes.
“First thing I’m wondering is whether that Russian was part of a ‘kompromat’ operation to further roil the U.S. election rather than a whistleblower,” one of the experts opined.
And all wondered why a Justice official — Ohr — who was not in the chain of command in the Russia counterintelligence probe, and whose wife worked for Fusion GPS on the Trump project, interviewed Simpson at all.
The Ohr interview and many other now-public actions in the Russia collusion case are “breaking every protocol at the fundamental level of intelligence gathering,” one highly decorated intelligence professional told me.
Whatever their assessment, Congress has a wide, new mandate to investigate the Simpson-Ohr-Steele contacts with renewed vigor and lots of questions that did not exist just a few short weeks ago: What was on the memory stick? What did Ohr do with the information? Did the FBI rely on it for future court actions? Did the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that approved surveillance warrants know Ohr was getting information from the Simpson-Steele operation after Steele had been dismissed?
Those answers could make for a long, politically hot autumn in Washington.
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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