Bruce Ohr, the highest-ranking Obama Justice Department official to involve himself in distributing the anti-Trump dossier, carried out his freelancing through numerous meetings, phone calls and emails as a link between the FBI and Hillary Clinton forces.
He told a colleague that the Russia election scandal reached the top — Donald Trump. It was his “duty as a citizen” to spread the unverified allegations around town, he said.
During all of Mr. Ohr’s maneuverings, from the summer of 2016 to Mr. Trump’s election to the fall of 2017, he hid the operation from his bosses.
When Mr. Ohr’s name surfaced in media reports, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was stunned, according to an accounting by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.
In November 2017, Mr. Rosenstein immediately stripped Mr. Ohr of two lofty titles: associate deputy attorney general and director of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
“The idea that he actually had some role in this Russia investigation was shocking to me,” Mr. Rosenstein later told the inspector general. “We had been fending off these congressional inquiries. And they were asking for all sorts of stuff, 302s [FBI reports] and things, and … I had no idea that somebody on my staff had actually been involved in … an operational way in the investigation.”
Mr. Horowitz’s 434-page report on FBI abuse of wiretap laws to target Trump campaign associate Carter Page includes scores of pages on Mr. Ohr and his one-man Washington operation. The inspector general concluded that Mr. Ohr had committed “consequential errors in judgment” and “lapses in judgment.”
Mr. Ohr’s self-appointed operation started with an alliance with Glenn R. Simpson, the Fusion GPS co-founder who employed Mr. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, as a Trump-Russia investigator. Mr. Ohr then began communications with Christopher Steele. Mr. Simpson paid and controlled the former British spy as he wrote and distributed 17 dossier memos accusing Mr. Trump and aides of various felonies.
Mr. Steele contended there was a huge Trump-Russia election conspiracy. Special counsel Robert Mueller said there was not.
From a July breakfast with Mr. Steele, Mr. Ohr embarked on a year of dossier networking. He sat down with top FBI agents and mingled with the Justice Department’s criminal division, all the while talking up and delivering anti-Trump data from Mr. Steele and Fusion.
Mr. Ohr immediately rang up the FBI and in October got a session with the inner circle: Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and his counsel, Lisa Page. Later, he met with Peter Strzok, Ms. Page’s lover and the agent who led the Trump investigation known as Crossfire Hurricane. Mr. Ohr told Mr. McCabe that Mr. Steele, whose funds the public would later learn came from the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign, had a “political client.”
Mr. Ohr spoke with Mr. Steele’s FBI handler, who warned him that “Steele could not be trusted.”
Nov. 21, 2016, was an eventful day. Mr. Ohr met with Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec, who had welcomed Mr. Steele to her office to hear his dossier pitch. She quoted Mr. Ohr as saying the dossier was “kind of crazy … kind of wild … quite a tale.”
Later that day, Mr. Ohr traveled to FBI headquarters for his most high-powered meeting. This was a month after the FBI executed its first electronic and physical surveillance on Mr. Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
In the room sat the FBI who’s who of Crossfire Hurricane: Mr. Strzok, Ms. Page, a representative of the office of general counsel, a supervisory agent, the chief of counterintelligence analysis and the intelligence section chief.
According to participants’ notes, Mr. Ohr drew a link between Mr. Steele and the Clinton campaign. He said Fusion’s Mr. Simpson was “hired by a lawyer who does opposition research and the dossier was being fed to the campaign,” the inspector general’s report said.
Connections and contradictions
In three subsequent FBI wiretap applications to a judge, agents never disclosed the partisan link, according to Mr. Horowitz, who found that bureau agents misled the FISA court 17 times.
Mr. Steele was “desperate” to sink Mr. Trump, Mr. Ohr said.
Yet Mr. Steele doubted his own source network. “Reporting of Kremlin activities ‘may be exaggerated or conspiracy theory talk,’ so Steele cannot know whether all the reporting is true,” the notes say.
Mr. Ohr assured those around the table that Mr. Steele was not fabricating information.
The next month, Mr. Ohr asked for more information from Mr. Simpson and received it in the form of a thumb drive that he delivered to the FBI supervisory agent with whom he had met in November.
As 2017 began, Mr. Ohr received a new FBI handler and began using encrypted messaging with Mr. Steele.
By then, Mr. Steele had executed one of his most far-reaching operations. He delivered a hard-copy dossier to Mr. Simpson, who transferred it to David Kramer, an associate of Sen. John McCain. McCain hand-delivered it to FBI Director James B. Comey, whose agents by then had obtained most of the dossier’s memos. Mr. Kramer began spreading dossier material to news media, including BuzzFeed, which published it on Jan. 10, 2017.
At some point, Mr. Ohr broke from his heady encounters at the top and spread Steele information to an underling.
“Ohr’s colleague said that Ohr told her that Steele provided information that the Trump campaign had been corrupted by the Russians,” the inspector general’s report said. “The colleague told us that she asked Ohr if the allegations went ‘all the way to the President’ and that Ohr responded ‘yes.’”
Investigators asked Mr. Ohr why he did not at some point inform then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates that he had become an off-the-books investigator. He said he feared Ms. Yates would terminate his talks with Mr. Steele.
“He further stated that he did not want to stop talking to Steele because he was alarmed by the information he was receiving and believed he needed to get it to the FBI,” the inspector general’s report said.
“None of the FBI witnesses we interviewed,” the report said, “recalled anyone tasking Ohr to gather information from Steele or to act as an intermediary between the FBI and Steele.”
By May, the Crossfire team grew weary of Mr. Ohr as a Steele intermediary after 13 debriefings, but Mr. Ohr continued talking with Mr. Steele online and in video calls into the fall.
In his recounting of the Ohr saga, Mr. Horowitz implied that not every witness was candid.
Mr. Strzok, whose text messages to Ms. Page showed a strong dislike of Mr. Trump, told the inspector general that he didn’t know whether Mr. Ohr continued to talk with Mr. Steele after the FBI closed him out as a “confidential human source” in November 2016. The issue there was: Why would the FBI terminate the relationship but then continue to receive his allegations?
The inspector general’s report said, “Strzok’s handwritten notes indicate that he received updates from [a supervisory special agent] and others on December 12, 2016, December 20, 2016, December 22, 2016, and January 23, 2017, regarding Ohr’s ongoing communications with Steele and Simpson about Steele’s election reporting and Steele’s concerns about his sub-sources.”
Mr. Comey, whom Mr. Trump fired in May 2017, told the inspector general that he knew nothing of Mr. Ohr’s dealings until it reached news media.
“However,” the inspector general’s report said, “notes taken by Strzok during a November 23, 2016 Crossfire Hurricane update meeting attended by Comey, McCabe, Baker, Lisa Page … [unit chief of the office of general counsel], the FBI Chief of Staff, and [agent Bill Priestap] reference a discussion at the meeting concerning ‘strategy for engagement [with handling Agent 1] and Ohr’ regarding Steele’s reporting.”
The inspector general’s report pointed out another contradiction. Mr. Simpson told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he didn’t meet with Mr. Ohr before the election.
But in fact, Mr. Simpson met with Mr. Ohr that Aug. 22 and gave him three names he believed were intermediaries between Mr. Trump and the Kremlin.
Fusion’s Mr. Simpson declined the inspector general’s request to be interviewed.