By The Investigative writers of Georgia Weekly Post.
July and August 2016 one day may be remembered as the infamous summer of Steele and Ohr.
That’s because new evidence shows former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr’s efforts to influence the FBI’s Russia probe — on behalf of Donald Trump-despising British spy Christopher Steele — started much earlier than previously described.
▲Congressional Democrats are more inclined to believe Ohr’s description. But the differences in opinion really don’t matter. That’s because Ohr acknowledged to Congress that the July 30, 2016, meeting involved a discussion about the allegations Steele had been gathering against Trump and Russia.
For much of the past year, many in Congress have labored under the notion that Ohr, then the No. 4 Department of Justice (DOJ) official, began assisting the FBI’s probe into Russia election collusion only after Trump won the 2016 election.
Lawmakers’ belief was rooted in reports showing Ohr’s first documented interview with FBI agents occurred in November 2016, and in testimony from Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, who mentioned Ohr’s involvement in the probe as starting after Thanksgiving 2016.
But now, based on Ohr’s own account in a closed-door congressional interview and other contemporaneous documents, congressional investigators have learned that Ohr made his first contact with the FBI about Trump-Russia collusion evidence in late July and early August 2016. And his approach was prompted by information he got from his friend, the former British intelligence agent Steele.
The discovery is one of several key pieces of evidence emerging in recent weeks that explain how the FBI probe pivoted suddenly from looking at the conduct of Trump adviser George Papadopoulos to consuming a document now infamously known as the Steele dossier.
The FBI formally opened the Trump campaign probe — code-named Crossfire Hurricane — on July 31, 2016, based on an Australian diplomat’s claim that Papadopoulos, a young Trump campaign foreign policy aide, appeared to have prior knowledge that Russia had derogatory information it planned to release on Hillary Clinton.
Agents feared Papadopoulos might be looking to create contacts in Moscow to gain access to that Clinton dirt.
But multiple sources tell me the FBI soon received information — now considered highly classified — that undercut the theory of the Papadopoulos case. One source described the evidence as “indisputably exculpatory,” while another said the information “put the predicate used to start the case in reversal.”
Whatever the nature of that classified evidence, the FBI’s own account in court records shows agents suddenly seemed to lose a sense of urgency about the Papadopoulos allegation. They inexplicably waited about six months to interview both the Trump campaign aide and the European professor who allegedly alerted Papadopoulos to the Russia dirt and introduced him to Moscow contacts.
Instead, agents pivoted more aggressively to a different set of allegations of Russia-Trump collusion, those gathered by former British MI6 agent Steele, who at the time was working to dig up dirt on the GOP nominee as part of a Fusion GPS project funded by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Steele first approached the FBI about the raw intelligence of possible Trump-Russia ties on July 5, 2016, when he stopped by the bureau’s office in Rome. Whatever transpired there, that first contact was not enough to cause the FBI to start an immediate probe.
Then Ohr, the No. 4 DOJ official, intervened, according to the newly discovered information.
Ohr’s account to Congress and his contemporaneous notes show he had multiple contacts with Steele in July 2016. One occurred just before Steele visited the FBI in Rome, another right after Steele made the contact.
A third contact occurred July 30, 2016, exactly one day before the FBI and its counterintelligence official, Peter Strzok, opened the Trump probe officially.
Steele met with Ohr and Ohr’s wife, Nellie, in a Washington hotel restaurant for breakfast. At the time, Nellie Ohr and Steele worked for the same employer, Simpson’s Fusion GPS opposition research firm, and on the same project to uncover Russia dirt on Trump, according to prior testimony to Congress.
Ohr told lawmakers that his wife made about $45,000 for her work at Fusion in 2015 and 2016 and he disclosed to FBI officials that he might have a conflict because his wife worked for the same firm as Steele for a period of time.
Steele’s email asking for the July 30, 2016, breakfast suggested he had information to discuss about a “favorite business tycoon.” GOP investigators believe that could have been a reference to Trump.
Ohr has said he thinks the reference may have been to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a man both he and Steele hoped to “flip” as a prosecution witness against Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Congressional Democrats are more inclined to believe Ohr’s description. But the differences in opinion really don’t matter. That’s because Ohr acknowledged to Congress that the July 30, 2016, meeting involved a discussion about the allegations Steele had been gathering against Trump and Russia.
More significantly, Ohr told Congress the information related by Steele that day so concerned him that it prompted him to reach out to the FBI and pass it along, even though he knew he had a conflict of interest, given his wife’s work for Fusion on the same project.
According to my sources, Ohr called then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe the same day as his Steele breakfast and met with McCabe and FBI lawyer Lisa Page on Aug. 3 to discuss the concerns about Russia-Trump collusion that Steele had relayed.
Ohr disclosed to lawmakers that he made another contact with the FBI on Aug. 15, 2016, talking directly to Strzok. Within a month of Ohr passing along Steele’s dirt, the FBI scheduled a follow-up meeting with the British intelligence operative — and the path was laid for the Steele dossier to support a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Just as important, Ohr told Congress he understood Steele’s information to be raw and uncorroborated hearsay, the sort of information that isn’t admissible in court. And he told FBI agents that Steele appeared to be motivated by a “desperate” desire to keep Trump from becoming president.
There is now growing confidence that the FBI’s sudden pivot from Papadopoulos to Steele was driven by several individuals, all with serious political baggage: Page and Strzok exchanged text messages about their desire to stop Trump from becoming president; Steele admitted he was desperate to keep Trump from the presidency; Ohr’s wife worked for the firm hired by Clinton to find dirt on Trump; and McCabe’s wife was a Democratic candidate in Virginia whose campaign got hundreds of thousands of dollars of electioneering help from Clinton ally and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.
Ohr’s new account could be potentially explosive, both for Republicans trying to make the case that the FBI engaged in misconduct in investigating Trump and for the DOJ inspector general’s probe into whether the FBI misled a federal court in seeking the Trump campaign warrants.
Far more investigation needs to be done to resolve what happened. But there are now more serious questions about the FBI’s conduct, thanks to Ohr’s candor.
For starters, why did the FBI allow Ohr to participate in the Steele matter when there was a known conflict with his wife’s employment? And did they ever disclose that conflict to the court?
Why did the FBI fail to fully disclose to the court that Steele was being paid by Democrats to help defeat Trump, or that Steele himself was desperate to stop Trump?
Did agents misrepresent “hearsay” evidence as corroborated intelligence?
And should the FBI have shut down the probe — after the original predicate about Papadopoulos was called into question — rather than pivoting to Steele, especially since two key bureau employees involved in it, Strzok and Page, had their own expressed desire to keep Trump from winning the presidency?
The answers to these questions are essential to the American public and its ability to continue to trust the very important work of the FBI, the DOJ and the larger intelligence community.
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.