Rep. Darrell Issa said career Justice Department official Bruce Ohr gave members of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees some “solid information” on Tuesday as they investigate potential bias at the top echelons of U.S. law enforcement.
Besides Issa, a former chairman of the Oversight panel, other attendees at the hearing included Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the respective current and former chairmen of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Democratic lawmakers and most of the roughly three-dozen Republicans on the joint panel, still back home doing district work, did not attend, though some of their staff did.
The interview is part of the committees’ joint probe into potential abuses of power and misdeeds within the DOJ over the course of its investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private email server and possible ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
As lawmakers filtered in and out of the meeting, they said Ohr was direct in answering their questions.
But his answers contradicted those of another person of interest for House Republicans, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, according to Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz. Simpson and Ohr were in contact about the dossier put together by retired British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. But the degree to which they communicated is a point of contention.
“Either Bruce Ohr’s lying or Glenn Simpson’s lying … about their contacts with one another and the exchange of evidence,” Gaetz said.
Republicans have accused Ohr of working with Steele and Simpson to get the now-infamous dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia — yes, the one that speculates whether the Russian government has a videotape of Russian prostitutes urinating on each other as the president watched — into the hands of senior FBI officials. But lawmakers have said the FBI had already begun vetting Steele’s reporting before Ohr handed in the copy of the dossier he had procured separately from Steele.
Republicans claim the FBI concealed the political nature of the dossier in using it to seek a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court’s permission to wiretap Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“People at the FBI knew much more [about the dossier] than they released in the FISA warrant request,” Issa said Tuesday after hearing from Ohr.
Tuesday’s hearing is the second in a series of four sessions that began last week with DOJ and FBI officials. Whether Ohr will appear before the committee in a public setting remains unclear.
“I think there’s a lot more witnesses that we’re going to want to compare what Mr. Ohr is saying and remembering or not remembering before we have a hearing,” Issa said. “But he’s an important fact witness. He’s given us a lot of specific information.”
Republicans have found no evidence that Ohr was feeding information directly to Justice Department officials as they tried to obtain a warrant through the FISA courts.
“But we have found that he was working back and forth as a conduit for the FBI,” Issa said, indicating to reporters that Ohr told lawmakers Tuesday he passed information to multiple people at the FBI who were in touch with DOJ lawyers.
Issa said he and his colleagues will want to know more about whether the FBI disclosed to the Justice Department the source of their information from the dossier.
“That’s going to be one of the questions is, on the FBI side, whether they communicated that to the Department of Justice, as they should have, this individual who has clearly created a known conflict,” Issa said.
Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, worked for Fusion GPS, the consulting firm Democrats hired to conduct opposition research on Trump. Fusion GPS enlisted Steele due to his extensive contacts as a retired intelligence agent.
The FBI ended its relationship with Steele after he leaked his dossier to Buzzfeed News in 2016.
But House Republicans have claimed they have evidence that Ohr and Steele continued discussing the dossier long after the official relationship ended.
“We have emails showing Bruce Ohr and Chris Steele … were frequently communicating,” Meadows tweeted Monday. “Ohr was getting info from Steele long after the FBI claimed Steele was formally ‘terminated’ as a source. They had 60+ contacts.”
Ohr’s testimony extended deep into the afternoon with multiple lawmakers taking turns questioning him extensively.
The FBI interviewed Ohr a dozen times from November 2016 to May 2017 about his contact with Steele, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa revealed in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein requesting to see documents related to those communications.
Ohr was later demoted from his senior legal counsel position in the deputy attorney general’s office. He had previously served as the head of the department’s division overseeing organized crime and racketeering.
As part of their ongoing probe into potential bias at the DOJ and FBI, lawmakers will meet with former FBI general counsel James Baker on Thursday at 10 a.m. and with Trisha Anderson, an adviser in the DOJ’s office of legal counsel, on Friday at the same time.
Meadows claimed in a cryptic tweet Monday evening that members had been given “new information” suggesting department officials had leaked information to a Yahoo News reporter, and then used those press stories in their FISA applications.
Meadows was seen heading to the basement of the Rayburn Building after departing the hearing room Tuesday, but the elevator doors closed before he could be reached to elaborate on his tweet.
Department officials have flatly denied the allegations, and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam B. Schiff of California, released a memo in February that showed the FBI had initiated its investigation into Page two months before the bureau had its hands on the Steele dossier.
Page was no longer with the Trump campaign by the time the FBI began listening to his conversations with foreign nationals, Schiff’s memo revealed. And Page had long been on the bureau’s radar for his overseas connections, The Washington Post reported in February.
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