WASHINGTON — A top House Republican on Friday unilaterally released the transcript of congressional testimony from a top FBI official that highlighted connections between federal investigators and the source of opposition research into President Donald Trump’s Russia connections that the GOP has argued undermines the impartiality of the Mueller investigation.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said he chose to release testimony last summer by Bruce Ohr, a career Justice Department official who most recently led the department’s organized crime and drug task forces, to draw attention to what he called a “very disturbing pattern of behavior at the Department of Justice” as it conducted investigations into both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Ohr testified before a joint Judiciary and Oversight Committee “task force” last year as part of the GOP-led inquiry that focused heavily on the origins of the Russia investigation. No Democrat participated in the interview, which occurred during Congress’ August recess.
Collins’ action comes as the public is anticipating the end of the Mueller probe and the potential release of a final report outlining his findings, and also as Democrats have ramped up their own investigations into potential impeachable conduct by the president.
In the interview, Ohr disclosed that Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative whose research on Trump became known as the Steele dossier, had provided him with information relevant to the Russia investigation in 2016. Ohr said Steele told him that the former head of the Russian intelligence service had told someone that they “had Donald Trump over a barrel.” He also discussed meetings between a Trump foreign policy aide and high-level Russian officials, and that a lawyer working for a Russian oligarch was investigating large sums of money that Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman, had “stolen” from him.
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At the time, Steele was also employed by an opposition research firm working on behalf of Democrats. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, was also a contractor with the firm, Fusion GPS, and “provided some information to me” on a digital memory card, Ohr told the committee.
Ohr has been a favorite target of Republicans as they have questioned whether he and other Justice Department officials acted with political bias in launching probes of Trump and his associates. Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes first sought an interview with Ohr as part of his investigation of a secret surveillance warrant issued on former Trump foreign policy aide Carter Page.
Pressed by GOP lawmakers about information from Steele that he turned over to the FBI, Ohr said he disclosed that his source had also expressed that he was “desperate” Trump not be elected, and that his wife had a business relationship with the entity funding Steele’s work, “in case there is any concern that there might be any kind of bias or anything like that.”
A controversial memo authored by Nunes’ staff on the Intelligence Committee and released last year noted contact between Ohr and Steele in the fall of 2016, in which Steele expressed that he was “passionate" about Trump not becoming president. The memo also said that Ohr’s prior relationship with Steele and his wife’s employment by Fusion GPS was “inexplicably concealed” from the FISA court.
Democrats on the committee countered that the Nunes memo’s references to Ohr were “misleading,” and that there was no indication that Ohr was involved in the Page FISA application. But Ohr's testimony appears to support the memo's point that he was acting as a backchannel between the FBI and Steele even after they officially terminated their relationship with him because of reports that Steele was discussing his findings with reporters.
Ohr told the committee that when Steele called and provided information, “if it seemed like it was significant, I would provide it to the FBI.”
“At some point I became aware he had been terminated. But nevertheless, when I receive information from Chris Steele I’m not going to sit on it,” he said.
But Ohr insisted that he did not believe he was acting inappropriately.
“I have received information from different people about organized crime over the years, and in each case I’ve provided it to the FBI. Frankly, I don’t think most of that got to the level where my superiors … would have had any use for that information,” he said. “That was a regular practice of mine.”
The transcripts of interviews with Ohr and other witnesses before the joint committee investigation were sent to the Justice Department last December to be vetted for public release at the request of the outgoing GOP chairmen, Bob Goodlatte from the Judiciary Committee and Trey Gowdy from the Oversight Committee.
The Justice Department returned the Ohr transcript to the committee this week with redactions. But Collins said he was releasing a copy without those edits because the changes sought by the department did not relate to classified information or sensitive personal data. By releasing the transcript on the House floor, Collins would be protected under what is known as the Speech and Debate Clause from any reprimand.