A review of publicly available information causes a reasonable person to wonder whether Bruce Ohr broke the law by promoting his wife’s anti-Trump research to the FBI when he was working at the Justice Department.
The law prohibits public officials from involvement in matters in which their spouse has a financial interest. The question is, Did Ohr “personally and substantially” participate in a particular matter in which his spouse had a “financial interest” while he was employed by the Justice Department as the assistant attorney general? Let’s take a closer look.
Recall that the Hillary Clinton campaign (through its law firm Perkins Coie) hired opposition research firm Fusion GPS to generate dirt on Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. Fusion GPS in turn hired former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled the Trump dossier containing as yet unproven allegations of Russian dirt on Trump.
We learned in December that Ohr met with Fusion GPS in November 2016 — a critical time frame — while he was the associate deputy attorney general. Former FBI agent Peter Strzok has confirmed Ohr fed the FBI documents pertinent to the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, and The Hill reported the FBI used Ohr to continue collecting information from Steele, even after it terminated him as a source for leaking word of the investigation to the media.
John Solomon filled in the contours of Ohr’s role in the investigation, writing in The Hill of recently disclosed emails:
They also confirm that Ohr later became a critical conduit of continuing information from Steele after the FBI ended the Brit’s role as an informant. …
The FBI specifically instructed Steele that he could no longer ‘operate to obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI,’ those memos show.
Yet, Steele asked Ohr in the Jan. 31 text exchange if he could continue to help feed information to the FBI: ‘Just want to check you are OK, still in the situ and able to help locally as discussed, along with your Bureau colleagues.’
‘I’m still here and able to help as discussed,’ Ohr texted back. ‘I’ll let you know if that changes.’
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy recently expressed alarm that Ohr would insert himself into the ongoing Russia investigation. Understandably so. The FBI acts as the Justice Department’s investigator, and normally must convince the DOJ that the quality and quantity of gathered evidence will support a case before a federal court. When a senior DOJ prosecutor gives the FBI information, it comes with the DOJ’s implied endorsement of the evidence. This kind of implied endorsement may have played a role in the FBI’s decision to pay Steele to continue research on the Trump dossier.
Ohr sponsored Steele’s research in spite of the fact that, as Steele later admitted, critical allegations in the dossier remain unverified. In particular, Steele now refuses to stand by his allegations of Russian hacking. Steele reportedly said his dossier allegations were never supposed to be made public, which is incongruous with his dissemination of the allegations to Ohr and his decision to leak word of the investigation to the press.
Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson disclosed in a sworn declaration that Fusion GPS paid Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, a Russia expert, to help research and analyze potential opposition research on Trump.
Curiously, it appears Ohr’s relationship with both Simpson and Steele predated his wife’s work for Fusion GPS, which raises the question whether Simpson may have hired her to gain favor with him. We don’t know how long Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS, but Simpson’s December 2017 declaration indicates bank records from August 2015 through that time reflected she contracted with the firm to help research Trump. Ohr’s promotion of his wife’s research to the FBI potentially helped stoke continued demand for her services.
As pointed out by The Daily Caller, Ohr failed to disclose that his wife was being paid by Fusion GPS in his mandatory public financial disclosure form. The purpose of the form is to “identify potential or actual conflicts of interest.” Thus, The Daily Caller posits that when Ohr became involved in brokering his wife’s Trump-Russia research to the FBI, he deprived DOJ of the opportunity to identify this potential conflict of interest by failing to disclose the source of her “consulting” income. The DOJ had a legal right to know that Ohr’s wife was personally profiting from the research he promoted to the FBI.
One question that remains unanswered is whether Ohr also had a role in approving or overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation from within the DOJ. As noted by The Daily Mail, he “worked closely” with both Sally Yates, former assistant attorney general, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Also of note is that both Yates and Rosenstein signed off on one or more of the spy warrants for Trump associate Carter Page. If either Yates or Rosenstein consulted Ohr on the propriety of those applications, Ohr would have been in a position to endorse the validity of research for which his spouse was paid.
Violation of the law prohibiting public officials from involving themselves in matters in which their spouse has a financial interest (18 U.S.C. §208) is a crime punishable for up to five years in prison, if the conduct is deemed willful. The DOJ has the power to enforce this law civilly and criminally, and as Ohr’s employer, has a responsibility to do so if he violated it. So the DOJ’s perceived inaction in response to Ohr’s actions may set a government-wide precedent.
Steele openly sought to use the dossier to interfere with the election. Ohr promoted his work in spite of the fact that Steele made no secret to Ohr that he was desperate to stop Trump from becoming president. And he acted on it. Solomon reports, based on notes he reviewed of Ohr’s meeting with Steele: “‘Glen asked Chris to speak to the Mother Jones reporter. It was Glen’s Hail Mary attempt,’ Ohr wrote.”
In December 2016, Ohr received a memory stick with early versions of the dossier allegations. But why would he continue to receive Fusion GPS dirt even after the election? Perhaps because the campaign to stop Trump didn’t end after the election.
That December, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta supported calls to brief members of the Electoral College on the investigations into Trump’s Russia ties and into Russian meddling in the election. He openly advocated nullifying the election result by using the requested briefing to persuade members of the Electoral College to break with their voters.
The description of the requested briefing clearly matched the same “intelligence” that the Clinton campaign procured and Nellie Ohr helped Fusion GPS produce. Ohr may have conferred undeserved legitimacy on the “intelligence” when he promoted it to the FBI. This raises the question of whether his actions also constitute an attempt to “use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election,” in violation of another law.
Russian interference in an American election is obviously a serious concern. But public officials here in the United States are in an even greater position to use their power to tilt and influence future American elections. Ohr’s wife was indirectly hired by the Clinton campaign to help defeat Trump. Ohr seems to have used his position in the DOJ to help his wife further this contractual objective.
If we allow the government to pick its own leaders by interfering in elections, our democracy will quickly become a sham. That’s why Congress passed the law in the first place. Has the DOJ done enough to reassure Americans that officials within the DOJ will not interfere with future elections?
The DOJ might not have known the extent of Ohr’s involvement in 2016. But it certainly knows now. And government officials are undoubtedly watching how Ohr’s case plays out. Unfortunately, his continued presence in the DOJ sends them a powerful message about the relatively low risk of following his example.