President Trump has found a new favorite Twitter target. His name is Bruce Ohr, he works in the criminal division of the Justice Department, and though you may never have heard his name, the president has tweeted about him nine times since August 11.
Before Trump started tweeting, Ohr, a former associate deputy attorney general (until December 2017), was largely anonymous to the general public. But within some conservative circles, his purported involvement in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and possible Russian interference in the 2016 election has been the stuff of a great deal of theorizing over the past few months.
That theorizing has now reached Trump himself:
Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions “Justice” Department? A total joke!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2018
Now Ohr might lose his security clearance. He is facing a congressional hearing into what he knew about Christopher Steele and the dossier Steele helped to create. And Trump is repeatedly focusing attention on an employee within his own administration.
So who exactly is Bruce Ohr, and why are he and his wife, Nellie, at the center of a firestorm that began in conservative media and has exploded onto the president’s Twitter feed?
On the right, the story hinges on “lowlife” Christopher Steele
The big story that the Fake News Media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy A.G. Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly. It was Fusion GPS that hired Steele to write the phony & discredited Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary & the DNC….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2018
Bruce Ohr is a longtime Department of Justice employee. Until December 2017, in fact, he had two jobs within the DOJ: associate deputy attorney general, serving under Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein; and director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF).
But in December, he was demoted from associate deputy attorney general. The Justice Department didn’t detail the reasoning for the demotion, telling Fox News, “It is unusual for anyone to wear two hats as he has done recently,” but observers on the right assumed the real reason had to do with Ohr’s purported connections to the Steele dossier.
The Steele dossier is a document that alleged Trump was under the influence of Russian intelligence services, who had also compiled blackmail material on him. Steele was working for a company called Fusion GPS, founded by a former Wall Street Journal journalist named Glenn Simpson. And though the FBI began to examine ties between Trump and Russia after George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, told an Australian diplomat that Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton, many on the right believe the dossier was responsible for the launch of the Russia investigation.
Ohr met and emailed multiple times with Steele, who had been on the FBI payroll in the past as a source. According to emails revealed by the Hill earlier this month, contact between Ohr and Steele went on for more than a decade, from 2002 to 2017 — including after the FBI suspended its relationship with Steele because he shared information with the media.
Also, Bruce Ohr’s wife Nellie Ohr, a Russian history expert, worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS on Russia-related matters in mid-2016 — a fact that Bruce Ohr didn’t share on federal disclosure forms.
Most of this has been public knowledge since late last year, after Simpson, the Fusion GPS founder, testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017 about the creation of the Steele dossier and how much involvement Simpson and Fusion GPS had in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump presidential campaign’s potential Russia ties.
In his testimony, Simpson said he met with Ohr after the election to provide information about how the dossier was made. However, as the Weekly Standard’s Eric Felten pointed out, his testimony took place before news broke about Nellie Ohr’s work with Fusion GPS, and Simpson didn’t mention the connection.
Ohr was also mentioned in Rep. Devin Nunes’s heavily hyped memo, which alleged that the FBI abused its power in surveilling Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. The memo details how Steele told Ohr that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
Among many on the right, the implication is clear: Ohr’s involvement, whether via his meetings with Steele or through his wife’s work for Fusion GPS, casts aspersions on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, and taints the investigation itself.
But according to Rosenstein, Ohr has never worked on the Mueller investigation or the 2016 surveillance of Carter Page, the Trump foreign policy adviser. Even the Nunes memo doesn’t imply that Ohr knew anything about surveillance applications or any of the other fine-grain pieces of the investigation itself.
As my colleague Andrew Prokop wrote in February:
The memo reveals that Steele was in contact with Ohr and that in September 2016, Steele shared some of his negative opinions on Trump. … Yet note what the memo does not claim: that Ohr had anything to do with the surveillance application on Carter Page. Yes, it tries to imply that, by saying Ohr “worked closely with Deputy Attorneys General Yates and later Rosenstein,” who were previously mentioned as approving the wiretap. … But Yates and then Rosenstein were top justice officials overseeing basically everything in the department. Ohr was a subordinate of theirs, but his actual job was as the “Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Director.” If he was involved in the Page wiretap specifically, Nunes sure doesn’t provide the evidence to show that.
To Trump, it’s all about “the unequal application of the law”
The reason, then, that the Ohr story has persisted in conservative media and finally made its way to Trump’s attention isn’t because conservatives know anything definitive about Ohr — what he did or didn’t know about the Russia investigation or Fusion GPS, or what he knew about his wife’s work with the firm.
It’s because of optics. Ohr has helped back up a conservative case that the Russia investigation as a whole is an example of the unequal application of the rule of law. As Kimberley Strassel at the Wall Street Journal wrote on August 16, the Ohr case “smells of … impropriety.” It feeds a narrative on the right that the Mueller investigation is ignoring actions performed by the Clinton campaign or the Obama administration that, they argue, might be just as bad, or worse.
By not disclosing his wife’s job in federal disclosure forms and continuing to meet with Steele even after the FBI stopped working with him, Ohr has, in effect, made the DOJ and the Mueller probe look bad, said Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributor to National Review who has written extensively on Ohr.
“Ohr has done nothing to clear up the impression that while initially the fourth-ranking official in the Trump DOJ, he was communicating with an apparently discredited FBI informant to traffic in or add to the contents of the dossier well after the campaign,” Hanson said. “The lack of transparency on the part of a DOJ official in areas outside his normal purview is disturbing.”
Hanson argued that Ohr’s lack of professional involvement with the Russia investigation makes the situation worse, not better: “He was meeting with a disgraced FBI informant on matters that did not seem to have anything to do with his assigned tasks at DOJ,” he said.
Now Ohr’s security clearance — and his job — hangs in the balance
After being demoted from deputy assistant attorney general, Ohr was demoted again in January, losing his title of head of the OCDETF.
And he’s stayed quiet — he hasn’t commented on Trump’s tweets, or the constant barrage of criticism from the White House, including being among the officials mentioned by press secretary Sarah Sanders as at risk of losing their security clearances.
But others haven’t. As the administration has threatened former government employees with having their clearances revoked (and already has revoked the clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan), retired military and intelligence officials have widely criticized the revocations, which they view as being politically motivated.
After serving the nation most use security clearances (and their trustworthiness) to contribute to national defense or to help US industries maintain an advantage. This isn’t really that hard to understand, except to those who only think about financial gain. https://t.co/SntNvhHeaw
— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) August 20, 2018
For Ohr, who is a current DOJ employee, losing his clearance wouldn’t just be detrimental to his reputation but (even though he does have some job protections as a civil servant) would most likely result in the loss of his job entirely — raising the stakes of Trump’s tweets.
And it’s worth mentioning that much of the criticism Trump has aimed at Ohr has really been intended for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice overall, stemming from Trump’s continue ire that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and a belief that the DOJ — the one manned by Trump’s own appointees — is being deeply unfair to him and should be focused on “Crooked Hillary.” As he tweeted on August 14, “If we had a real Attorney General, this Witch Hunt” — meaning the Mueller investigation — “would never have been started!”
“They were all in on it, clear Hillary Clinton and FRAME Donald Trump for things he didn’t do.” Gregg Jarrett on @foxandfriends If we had a real Attorney General, this Witch Hunt would never have been started! Looking at the wrong people.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2018
Fired FBI Agent Peter Strzok is a fraud, as is the rigged investigation he started. There was no Collusion or Obstruction with Russia, and everybody, including the Democrats, know it. The only Collusion and Obstruction was by Crooked Hillary, the Democrats and the DNC!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2018