WASHINGTON (Circa) — A handful of Republican congressmen returned from the August recess early to grill Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr on his role in transmitting political opposition research on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
On Tuesday, House Republicans and staffers convened a joint Judiciary and Government Oversight Committee hearing with the former associate deputy attorney general as part of their inquiry into Justice Department and FBI activities during the 2016 election.
After roughly eight hours of questioning, congressmen said they were increasingly convinced that Ohr acted outside Justice Department norms when handling a questionable intelligence dossier submitted as evidence to initiate the FBI's investigation of the Trump campaign and potential ties to Russia.
"Bruce Ohr worked for the Department of Justice since 1991 and never in his entire history was anything handled in the way that this was handled," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told reporters. "We know beyond a shadow of a doubt this was a unique set of circumstances."
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., argued, "You have Bruce Ohr going very rogue."
Bruce Ohr was accompanied by a handful of personal and government-appointed lawyers. By all accounts, Ohr was forthcoming during his congressional deposition and answered most questions without consulting his lawyers.
WHY FOCUS ON BRUCE OHR?
Ohr became a central character for Republicans and President Donald Trump for his apparent role as the conduit of a flawed intelligence report gathered on behalf of a political campaign to the intelligence community.
In 2016, Ohr's wife, Nellie, was employed by Fusion GPS, a political research firm hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign to gather dirt on candidate Trump and his possible ties to the Russian government. Nellie Ohr was reportedly paid $44,000 for her work on the Trump-Russia dossier.
Fusion GPS turned to former British spy and U.S. intelligence asset Christopher Steele who was hired to produce a dossier on Trump that included claims the FBI later called "salacious and unverified." In October 2016, the FBI submitted the Steele dossier as evidence to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as part of an application to launch a counterintelligence investigation of members of the Trump campaign.
That investigation continued under the supervision of FBI Director James Comey until he was fired by President Trump in March 2017. Robert Mueller was then appointed as special counsel in charge of the investigation.
In comments to the press, lawmakers hinted that Ohr acted as a freelancer within the Justice Department. Then a top DOJ official, Ohr regularly communicated with Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, according to text messages, emails and handwritten notes leaked to the media.
It is not clear whether Ohr's actions were coordinated or authorized by superiors within the Department of Justice. He was reportedly coordinating with a number of individuals at the FBI.
According to Rep. Issa, Ohr had multiple "handlers" at the FBI.
Committee investigators did not found evidence that Ohr worked directly with individuals at the Justice Department, Issa told reporters. "We have found that he was working back and forth as a conduit for the FBI." Asked about Ohr's points of contact at the bureau, the congressman said it was "quite a list of names."
DID OHR PROVIDE ANY NEW INFORMATION?
Most lawmakers were generally satisfied with Ohr who proved to be a cooperative witness throughout the lengthy hearing.
However, some were concerned that the information he provided was at odds with previous testimony given by Fusion GPS executive Glenn Simpson and other Justice Department witnesses.
"In the first hour of testimony, it became very clear that there are a number of factual conflicts," said Rep. Gaetz. "Either Bruce Ohr is lying or Glenn Simpson is lying. And in another circumstance, either Bruce Ohr is lying or Lisa Page is lying."
Page, a former DOJ attorney, recently testified before the committee about a series of anti-Trump text messages she exchanged with former FBI special agent Peter Strzok. President Trump and his defenders have interpreted the texts as evidence of political bias and an agencywide "witch hunt" against the president.
To bring the facts to light, Gaetz wants the public to have access to witness transcripts. He also called on the committee chairmen to bring Ohr back to Congress for an open hearing. "We need to turn the cameras on and sort out who is telling the truth," he insisted.
According to House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the committee will make information about Ohr's closed-door testimony available "soon." Gowdy has indicated he is opposed to the idea of an open hearing with Bruce Ohr, telling Fox News he preferred the idea of interview Ohr in private "not in a public circus setting."
Lawmakers also learned that the FBI was aware the Steele dossier had "credibility issues," but still used it to open an intelligence investigation.
Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters that the FBI knew the dossier was "unverified" before it was used to initiate surveillance on a Trump campaign associate.
"Before we ended up initiating that first FISA application, that there were credibility issues with regards to the dossier that the FBI knew about," Meadows said.
Republicans have claimed the FBI failed to disclose relevant information about the political origins of the Steele dossier when submitting it to a FISA court. The president and his supporters on Capitol Hill have argued the Steele dossier was essential to authorizing a so-called government spying campaign against Trump and his associates.
According to a former National Security Agency legal counsel, the political biases of a source typically do not impact information submitted in an initial intelligence investigation. Because the FISA Court is not a criminal court, the evidence does not have to meet the standards of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, left the hearing even more concerned about surveillance abuses. Ratcliffe said he expected Bruce Ohr to provide relevant information on the FISA process. "Thus far, he has done nothing but exacerbate my concerns that the FISA process has been abused."
Lawmakers were also focused on evidence of political bias. In his testimony, Ohr apparently provided information that Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele had a deep antipathy toward President Trump that did not end with their opposition research for Clinton and the DNC.
"One of the things we're learning here today was that Fusion GPS was, in fact, an organization that willingly hated the president and wanted to stop him from being elected," Issa said.
He argued that Fusion GPS and Steele "were part of that 'insurance policy' we heard about earlier with Lisa Page and Peter Strzok."
President Trump weighed in on the Bruce Ohr saga in recent days calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire him. Trump also threatened to revoke Ohr's security clearance.
Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions “Justice” Department? A total joke!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2018
Trump tweeted, "Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions 'Justice' Department? A total joke!"
Ohr continues to work at the Justice Department though he was downgraded and moved to the criminal division.
Rep. Meadows backed the president, saying, "Unless Bruce Ohr was instructed to do what he did, then certainly he should be fired."
The next phase of the House GOP-led investigations remains unclear, particularly with the November midterm elections on the horizon.
If Democrats regain control of the House, they will almost certainly shut down the current probes into the Justice Department and FBI or refocus the investigations on potential wrongdoing by President Trump.
The ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees previously denounced the Republican investigations as a defense of President Trump and an attempt to "interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation" of the president led by Robert Mueller.