A previously unnoticed passage in Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on federal surveillance abuse suggests Bruce Ohr and his compatriots were willing to bargain with a Russian oligarch to take down Donald Trump.
Two-hundred-plus pages into the IG report, while discussing former Associate Deputy Attorney General Ohr’s continued contacts with Crossfire Hurricane dossier author Christopher Steele, Horowitz revealed a significant detail that to date has been overlooked: “On December 7, 2016, Ohr convened an interagency meeting (including representatives from the FBI) regarding strategy in dealing with Russian Oligarch 1.”
The IG report added that after the meeting “one of Ohr’s junior Department colleagues who attended the meeting” asked “Ohr about why the U.S. government would support trying to work with Russian Oligarch 1”—the moniker used in the IG report to refer to one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, the aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Ohr’s reported response is shocking: “Ohr told her that Steele provided information that the Trump campaign had been corrupted by the Russians,” and that the corruption went all the way to president-elect Trump. Ohr’s junior colleague told the IG that Ohr explained “this information was ‘the basis for the [Deripaska] discussion” in the interagency meeting they had just left.
It has been known for some time that Steele spoke with Ohr about Deripaska. But while the Steele-friendly press portrayed those discussions as FBI attempts to flip Deripaska, the IG reached a different conclusion. He found “Steele performed work for Russian Oligarch 1’s attorney on Russian Oligarch 1’s litigation matters, and, as described later in Chapter Nine, passed information to Department attorney Bruce Ohr advocating on behalf of one of Russian Oligarch 1’s companies regarding U.S. sanctions.” The IG further found that Ohr and Steele’s communications concerning Deripaska occurred “in 2016 during the time period before and after Steele was terminated as a [Confidential Human Source].”
These findings, coupled with previous reports that Steele worked for one of Deripaska’s lawyers, London-based Paul Hauser, and appeared to lobby on behalf of Deripaska through a D.C.-based attorney, Adam Waldman, renew questions concerning whether Steele violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Likewise, the IG report’s notes that “Ohr said that he understood Steele was ‘angling’ for Ohr to assist him with his clients’ issues,” and that “Ohr stated that Steele was hoping that Ohr would intercede on his behalf with the Department attorney handling a matter involving a European company,” suggest the need for a FARA investigation into Steele’s work.
But the larger question concerns what the above excerpted passage from the IG report suggests about the December 7, 2016 meeting.
5 Things We Learned From This Excerpt
While no further mention was made of this meeting in the IG report, and while Horowitz remained vague in his description of the meeting, the passage nonetheless revealed several key points: (1) that Ohr had “convened,” (2) the “interagency” meeting, (3) after Americans elected Trump . We also know that (4) one of Ohr’s Department of Justice junior colleagues attended the meeting, at which (5) there was a discussion of “trying to work with” Deripaska.
From these facts, we can surmise that Ohr called the December 7, 2016, meeting in his capacity as then-director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), for three reasons. First, OCDETF is a multi-agency task force, comprised of members from the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Treasury Department, U.S. Postal Service, and Department of Labor. Second, Ohr testified before Congress that, as director of OCDETF, his duties included “coordinate drug and organized crime investigations within the Department,” and that “organized crime investigations” including transnational investigations of Russian organized crime and Russian oligarchs.
Relatedly, the IG report noted that Ohr said when he became the OCDETF director, his boss “expressed his desire for Ohr to expand OCDETF’s mission to include transnational organized crime matters.” Ohr then told the IG “that, as a result, he continued working on transnational organized crime policy and, in order to maintain awareness, tracked Russian organized crime issues.” Finally, we know that one of Ohr’s “junior colleagues” attended the meeting, indicating Ohr called the gathering in his official capacity and not as part of his unauthorized Crossfire Hurricane spying.
We can also surmise that because the IG did not identify any specific FBI agents from the Crossfire Hurricane investigation as present at Ohr’s meeting, the “representatives from the FBI” in attendance were not ones involved in the Russia collusion probe. Further, had other members of the Crossfire Hurricane team been present at the December 7, 2016 meeting Ohr called, Horowitz would have surely discussed their role.
Likewise, we can infer that Ohr did not explain during his meeting why the task force should “try to work with” Deripaska, because had he, his junior colleague would have had no need to question him on that point after the meeting. Finally, we know from Ohr’s response to his junior colleague that he suggested working with Deripaska because of the “intel” Steele provided that the Trump campaign was corrupt—all the way up to the then-president-elect.
The implications are startling: Ohr, in his apparent capacity as director of OCDETF, called a meeting of agency members to discuss “working with” a Russian oligarch because of his belief, premised on the unverified Steele dossier, that President-elect Trump was corrupt.
Yet it appears from the IG report that Ohr did not convey to his interagency team why he sought to work with Deripaska, much less that Steele’s “intel” formed the basis for his advocacy. Again, why else would his junior colleague need to inquire on that point?
The Details Don’t Stop There
Ohr’s supervisors were also unaware of Ohr’s contact with Steele, but here there is another significant detail from the IG report: “When asked why he did not alert anyone in ODAG [the Office of the Deputy Attorney General] about his contacts with Steele and Simpson, . . . ‘Ohr stated that his contacts with Simpson and Steele were not part of any of his OCDETF cases, so he provided the information to the FBI and career people instead.’”
Maybe his “contacts” with Simpson and Steele were “not part of any his OCDETF cases,” but did the Steele “intel” prompt Ohr to push for the United States to work with Deripaska in Ohr’s role as director of OCDETF?
The timing of the December 7, 2016, meeting suggests another troubling possibility: that Ohr called the meeting to discuss the U.S. government “working with Deripaska” to jump-start the lingering criminal investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. As the IG report noted,
in addition to Ohr’s interactions with the FBI and Steele in connection with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, Ohr also participated in discussions about a separate money laundering investigation of Paul Manafort that was then being led by prosecutors from the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), which is located in the Criminal Division at the Department’s headquarters. That criminal investigation was opened by the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division in January 2016, approximately 2 months before Manafort joined the Trump campaign as an advisor, and concerned allegations that Manafort had engaged in money laundering and tax evasion while acting as a political consultant to members of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian politicians.
Now the kicker: “Shortly after the 2016 elections, Ohr participated in several meetings with three senior attorneys from the Department’s Criminal Division during which they discussed ways to move the Manafort investigation forward more quickly.” The IG report then notes that “between November 16, 2016 and December 15, 2016, Ohr participated in several meetings that were attended, at various times, by some or all of the following individuals: [Bruce] Swartz, [Zainab Ahmad], Andrew Weissmann (then Section Chief of CRM’s Fraud Section), [Peter] Strzok, and Lisa Page.”
Further, according to the IG report, the meetings involving Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann focused on their shared concern that MLARS was not moving quickly enough on the Manafort criminal investigation and whether they could move the investigation forward. Additionally, both Ohr and Swartz told the IG “they felt an urgency to move the Manafort investigation forward because of Trump’s election and a concern that the new administration would shut the investigation down.”
Remember, Weissmann Ran the Special Counsel
During one December 2016 meeting—the date of which was not specified—Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann “discussed a plan for the Department to approach [a] foreign national,” who was currently under indictment and who “Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann came to believe had information relating to Manafort’s alleged criminal conduct.” The plan discussed called for them to “seek his cooperation against Manafort.”
Significantly, none of these individuals had any role in the Manafort investigation and no one from MLARS attended their strategic sessions. Further, Ohr’s boss stated that “it was ‘unbelievable’ that Ohr was involved in these meetings because as OCDETF Director it was not his job to involve himself in the Manafort investigation.” But that begs the question of whether Ohr tried to use his position as OCDETF director to affect the Manafort investigation.
While the IG report notes the foursome discussed seeking the cooperation of an indicted foreign national in the investigation against Manafort, no mention is made of any discussion concerning using Deripaska to bring down Manafort. That omission seems strange given that, during Ohr’s first meeting with Swartz and Ahmad on November 16, 2016, he advised them of information “about [Paul] Manafort and Trump and possible Russian influence that [Ohr] was getting from Steele and Glenn Simpson.”
We also know from the IG report that “on September 23, 2016, at Steele’s request, Steele met with Ohr in Washington, D.C.,” and at that meeting Steele conveyed “information regarding Russian Oligarch 1’s willingness to talk with the U.S. government about Manafort.”
We also know from the IG report that Ohr’s telephone log shows Ohr called Simpson on December 8—the day after the interagency meeting in which “working with Deripaska” was discussed. While Ohr “could not recall why he contacted Simpson, Ohr said that he met with Simpson on December 10, 2016, and that Simpson gave him a thumb drive” at that time.
Adding this chronology to the facts the IG report reveals about Ohr’s December 7, 2016, interagency meeting raises serious questions concerning whether Ohr and his compatriots discussed Ohr leveraging his position as the director of OCDETF to push for a deal for Deripaska, with the end goal of getting Manafort and, in turn, so they thought, Trump.
While it is too late for Horowitz to consider these questions, the same cannot be said for U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham.