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DOJ official targeted by Trump faces House grilling

Bruce Ohr met with House investigators behind closed doors as part of a GOP-led inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation.
Image: Former associate deputy U.S. attorney general Bruce Ohr arrives to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington
Former associate deputy U.S. attorney general Bruce Ohr arrives to testify before the House Judiciary, House Oversight, and Government Reform committees on Capitol Hill on Aug. 28, 2018.Chris Wattie / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Bruce Ohr, a career Justice Department official who’s become a major target of President Donald Trump amid his biting criticism of federal law enforcement, spent eight hours facing off with congressional investigators behind closed doors Tuesday as part of a GOP-led inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation.

Ohr, who most recently led the Justice Department’s organized crime and drug task forces, has come under scrutiny by Republicans for his relationship with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who conducted opposition research on then-candidate Trump. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, is also an employee of Fusion GPS, the firm who commissioned Steele’s so-called dossier on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Though the House is in not in session, several of Trump’s top allies on the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees returned to Washington for Tuesday’s interview. No Democrats from either committee participated, though.

Republicans indicated that their questions largely centered on the exact timing and nature of Ohr’s personal interactions with Steele, and whether Ohr was improperly passing information from him to the FBI even after the agency had terminated its relationship with him. Those lawmakers who spoke to reporters said Ohr was largely cooperating with the inquiry, but cast doubt on some of his answers and whether they contradicted testimony from other witnesses.

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Even as focus has turned to new developments involving longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen and potential cooperation from other key players in Trump’s business empire, the president’s allies in Congress have continued their own probe into whether political considerations influenced the Justice Department and its decision to open a counterintelligence investigation against Trump in the summer of 2016.

Ohr has been a leading target of key Republicans like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who first sought an interview with Ohr as he also subpoenaed the Justice Department last summer for documents related to the Steele dossier and whether it contributed to a secret surveillance warrant application against Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

A controversial memo authored by Nunes’ staff on the Intelligence Committee and released earlier this year noted contact between Ohr and Steele in the fall of 2016, in which Steele expressed that he was “passionate about [Trump] not being 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 Republicans still allege that Ohr may have been acting as a backchannel to the FBI on behalf of Steele, whose relationship with the agency was terminated after he reportedly met with members of the news media to discuss his work on Trump and Russia.

Ohr appeared before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees’ joint task force on the Russia probe. The same entity both privately and publicly questioned former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who oversaw the Clinton email investigation and the early stages of what would become the Mueller probe. Strzok testified in July that the FBI did receive “documents and material” from Ohr in connection with its investigation, though he would not specify whether they came from Steele.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a loyal Trump ally, said Ohr’s testimony again showed that there was "excessive reliance on the dossier — how the dossier was developed, how it was paid for, how it was handled, how it was turned into an intelligence document.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., alleged that Ohr continued to pass information to the FBI from Steele — and that his ongoing involvement should have been disclosed to the FISA court.

"What we learned today was that the FBI was absolutely in possession of material facts that they withheld from the FISA courts,” Gaetz added, though neither he nor Meadows provided specific details.

Trump has included Ohr on his list of former administration officials who should have security clearances revoked. The president has also tweeted that Ohr should be fired for his role in “helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan said Tuesday that it was his understanding that everything Ohr did was “approved and known to senior Department of Justice officials.”

“I don't know all the facts here. But I think some of the facts that are being purported by some members of Congress may not, in fact, be the actual facts,” Brennan said in an interview on MSNBC.