Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees have jumped to the defense of Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who met behind closed doors with Republican lawmakers Tuesday as part of their probe into potential bias at the top reaches of U.S. law enforcement.
Top Judiciary Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York and Oversight ranking member Elijah E. Cummings said the private hearing with Ohr, the second of four meetings Republicans have scheduled with DOJ and FBI officials over the August recess, was meant to distract from President Donald Trump’s increasingly precarious legal position as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III secures guilty verdicts and plea agreements with multiple people in Trump’s inner circle.
“With Paul Manafort in jail, Michael Cohen in court, and a host of longtime Trump confidants cooperating with federal prosecutors, we can understand why Republicans are increasingly desperate to create a distraction and undermine the Department of Justice as a hedge against what the investigators may find,” Nadler and Cummings said in a joint statement Wednesday.
They dubbed the interview with Ohr a “complete waste of time” and said Ohr “violated no law, regulation, or Department of Justice policy.”
That’s a far cry from what Republicans said after emerging from the meeting room in the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday.
Ohr gave lawmakers and the Democratic and Republican staffers at the meeting “solid information,” California Rep. Darrell Issa said.
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.
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The interview was 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.
Republicans have accused Ohr of working with retired British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson, the founder of the political opposition research firm Fusion GPS, to get the now-infamous dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia into the hands of senior FBI officials. But lawmakers have said the FBI had already begun vetting Steele’s reporting before Ohr became involved.
The Democrats said Ohr never went behind the backs of higher-ups at the DOJ and FBI about his contacts with Steele, even after the FBI had formally terminated its relationship with him as one of its sources.
Ohr debriefed with FBI officials each time he and Steele were in contact about the dossier.
Nadler and Cummings also refuted Republicans’ claims that the FBI ended its relationship with Steele because the bureau’s investigators doubted the information in his dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia.
Democrats said investigators stopped formally using Steele as a human source after he made “unauthorized disclosures to the press” — that is, when he leaked his dossier to Buzzfeed News and The Guardian in the summer of 2016.
Steele reached out to Ohr with new information on multiple occasions after his official relationship with the FBI had been terminated, a periodic correspondence that raised the eyebrows of more conservative House members such as Meadows and Jordan.
Each time though, Nadler and Cummings’ release maintains, Ohr “appropriately handed [the information] off” to other FBI investigators who were working on the Trump-Russia probe because Ohr was working elsewhere within the department.
“It was not his job to vet the accuracy of this information himself,” the joint press release states.