The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee took the unusual step Friday of publicly releasing a 268 page interview transcript with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, confirming reports that Ohr forwarded material to the FBI from his wife, and that former British Intelligence agent Christopher Steele warned during the 2016 campaign that Russian intelligence believed they had President Donald Trump "over a barrel."
"He (Steele) told me that the former head of - or he had information that the former head of the Russian foreign intelligence service had said that they had Trump over a barrel," said Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official who funneled information from Steele to FBI investigators.
"My interpretation is that that meant that, if true, the Russian Government had some kind of compromising material on Donald Trump," Ohr told lawmakers in the August 28, 2018 deposition, as he defended the quality of information Steele had provided the U.S. Government in the past.
"Chris Steele has, for a long time, been very concerned about Russian crime and corruption and what he sees as Russian malign acts around the world, in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere," Ohr told Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). "And if he had information that he believed showed that the Russian Government was acting in a hostile way to the United States, he wanted to get that information to me."
In the deposition, Ohr acknowledged that he forwarded information not only from Steele to the FBI - but also from his wife, Nellie Ohr, who worked at Fusion GPS, the company which had hired Steele to do intelligence work on President Trump from Europe.
Ohr said he realized during 2016 that his wife was researching 'some of the same people that I had heard about from Chris Steele,' and that she provided her husband with a thumb drive of information, which he then gave to FBI investigators.
Republicans found the chain of events described by Ohr to be a bit difficult to swallow.
"I'm trying to envision this cold start to a conversation with 'Here, honey, here's a thumb drive,'" said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) at one point.
Ohr, an expert in Russian organized crime, said he never looked at any of the information.
"I didn't want to plug it into my machine at work," Ohr testified. "I just gave it to the FBI."
The transcript of the deposition was released by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) on Friday; Collins said he took the unilateral action because he was frustrated that it was taking so long for the Trump Justice Department to make the transcript public.
"After many months, and little progress, our patience grows thin," Collins said in a speech on the House floor on Friday morning.
"I intend to make other transcripts public soon," Collins said, referring to interviews done with a variety of Justice Department and FBI figures when Republicans were in charge of the House in 2018.
Collins said the transcripts were being held back because of questions over redactions, as he accused the Trump Justice Department of slow walking requests to make the testimony public.
In 2018, House Republicans conducted a series of private interviews with different figures involved in the Russia investigation - not focusing on possible wrongdoing involving the Trump campaign - but instead looking at Justice Department and FBI officials, and how they came to start and conduct the initial investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Other than a two day closed door interview with former FBI Director James Comey - who requested the release of his closed door testimony - none of the other private transcripts had been released publicly until Collins did so on Friday.
While Ohr's testimony was in private, some highlights were immediately leaked to a series of news organizations back in August of 2018.
"AP sources: Lawyer was told Russia had 'Trump over a barrel,'" the Associated Press reported.
"DOJ official told Russia had Trump 'over a barrel,'" was the CNN headline at the time.
The GOP inquiries for Ohr repeatedly sought to raise questions about a broader conspiracy of actions by officials at the Justice Department, as Republicans tried to paint a picture of a group of government officials doing everything they could to investigate Mr. Trump and his allies.
Republicans also found it hard to believe that Ohr's wife got a job from Fusion GPS without his involvement.
"I don't remember who made the contact, whether she spoke with Glenn Simpson directly or whether there was another party or someone else involved. I just know it wasn't me," Ohr said of his wife's job.
“So when she came home and said, "Honey, I got a
job with Glenn Simpson," what did you say?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) at one point.
In the interview, Ohr was asked about an email from Steele in which Steele wanted to talk about 'our favorite business tycoon’ - which GOP lawmakers seemed to believe was a certain U.S. candidate.
But Ohr repeatedly said that description wasn't a reference to President Trump, but rather to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who was owed money by Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Republicans again and again pressed Ohr about how he handled information from Steele, and why he did not inform his bosses that he was handing over that material to the FBI.
"I have received information from different people about organized crime over the years, and in each case I've provided it to the FBI," Ohr explained.
Ohr said he did not have a personal relationship with Glenn Simpson, who had hired Christopher Steele for Fusion GPS, but that they had met several times through the years.
Ohr defended his contacts with Steele, even after the FBI had terminated their relationship with the former British agent.
“When I got a call from Chris Steele and he provided information, if it seemed like it was significant, I would provide it to the FBI,” Ohr said.
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