Bruce Ohr
© U.S. Army Sgt. Amanda Moncada
Bruce Ohr
He was actually associate deputy attorney general until recently.

Since late 2017, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr has emerged as a central character in the Trump dossier saga, including the contested way the dossier's allegations were presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He has been an object of the president's ire, of late, and so August 17 a trio of New York Times reporters, Michael Shear, Katie Benner, and Nicholas Fandos, came to the DoJ man's defense with an article titled " Embracing Conspiracy Theory, Trump Escalates Attack on Bruce Ohr." To hear them tell it, Ohr is an innocent bystander. It's an effort at elision so strained it makes one hope the Times writers didn't hurt themselves.

"President Trump threatened on Friday to quickly revoke the security clearance of Bruce Ohr, a little-known Justice Department official" the Times reports, describing Ohr as "a midlevel government worker." Katie Benner had written a solo-bylined story two days before titled " Little-Known Justice Dept. Official Makes Trump's Security Clearance List." Just in case anyone missed the drift, the first graph of Benner's August 15 article describes Ohr as "a little-known career Justice Department official." Two days later, Shear, Benner and Fandos wrote that in targeting Ohr, Trump "reached deep into the bureaucracy."

Anyone familiar with Washington could be forgiven for assuming that means Ohr is a GS-14, or maybe at most a GS-15, the typical job scale for a midlevel federal careerist. You'd never think from reading the New York Times article that until recently Ohr was one of the most senior officials at Justice Department-associate deputy attorney general.

But the Times really, really wants us to believe that poor Bruce Ohr is a nobody, an unlucky schlemiel plucked from obscurity by right-wingers to be propped up as a presidential punching bag. Shear, Benner, and Fandos tell us that Ohr is "A largely anonymous part of the 113,000-person Justice Department work force." Either the Times reporters know nothing about the structure of the Justice Department (which is unlikely) or they are being dishonest with the reader (which would be shameful). Aside from the fact that Ohr had climbed nearly to the top of DoJ's greasy pole, how many "anonymous" DoJ employees are regularly featured in departmental press releases, as Ohr once was? Typical is the September 16, 2016, announcement that for National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week, "Bruce G. Ohr, Associate Deputy Attorney General and Director of DOJ's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Program will participate..."

Not only is Ohr a "little-known," worker from "deep into the bureaucracy," the Times would have us believe that Ohr has been lied about. "Departing the White House for a fund-raiser," Shear, Benner, and Fandos write, "the president told reporters that Mr. Ohr was 'a disgrace' and said incorrectly that Mr. Ohr played a part in starting the investigation into Russian election interference and possible links to Trump associates." Really? Before we accuse Trump of speaking "incorrectly," is it too much to ask what the president actually said? Notice that though Trump's "disgrace" declaration is quoted verbatim - as signaled by quotation marks - the Times does not quote the statement that they denounce as incorrect. Perhaps that's because Trump said nothing resembling what they suggested he said.

Here is the totality of the president's comments about Bruce and Nellie Ohr at the impromptu presser that took place on the South Lawn as Trump paused, walking to board Marine One. He said of Robert Mueller's special counsel team, "They should be looking at Bruce Ohr and his wife Nellie for dealing with, by the way, indirectly, Russians." And then, asked about Bruce Ohr's security clearance, Trump said, "I think Bruce Ohr is a disgrace. I suspect I'll be taking it away very quickly. I think that Bruce Ohr is a disgrace, with his wife, Nellie. For him to be in the Justice Department, and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace."

Where, in those remarks, is there anything like a claim from Mr. Trump that Bruce Ohr "played a part in starting the investigation."? Yes, Trump says that the Ohrs played some sort of part in the whole Russia affair, but shouting over the skirl of the helicopter's engine on August 17, the president made no claim that the Ohrs had a hand in starting the investigation. Instead, speaking with his typical imprecision, Trump said that Ohr "doing what he did" was "a disgrace."

So what is it that little-known Bruce Ohr was doing?

We know that Bruce Ohr was in frequent contact with Christopher Steele, author of the opposition research dossier on Trump. (Steele, of course, was hired by political research firm Fusion GPS, which was paid by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee by way of law firm Perkins Coie.) Shear, Benner, and Fandos do their best to play this down as just an ongoing and innocuous friendship: "Mr. Ohr was in touch with Mr. Steele, a professional acquaintance whom he had known before Mr. Steele began working for Fusion GPS."

What the Times fails to mention was Ohr's role as a go-between allowing Steele to feed his unverified reporting to the FBI long after the bureau had officially dropped Steele as a source. The dossier was a key part of the initial warrant application the FBI filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court October 21, 2016, to surveil Carter Page. In that application, Steele is touted as Mr. Credibility. But soon after that original filing, the bureau discovered Steele had been talking to the press, which they had forbidden him to do. When it came time to renew the warrant, the bureau told the FISA court it had "suspended its relationship" with Steele. When it came time to renew the warrant again, the bureau stated-and they underlined it for emphasis-that it had " closed" Steele " as an FBI source."

And yet, all that time, the FBI continued to collect information from Steele - just not directly. Bruce Ohr would talk with Steele and then report back to FBI agents who wrote down Steele's stories in official "302" memos summarizing the Ohr-Steele conversations. That's no mean accomplishment for a little-known, mid-level worker from deep in the bureaucracy. Especially one who, according to the New York Times, "has no direct involvement in the inquiry."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham think otherwise. They have asked Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to answer a string of serious questions about Ohr. An example:
"Was anyone in the Justice Department, including senior leadership, aware that Mr. Ohr continued to pass information from Steele and Fusion GPS to the FBI even after Steele was suspended, and terminated, as a source?"
"Was it proper for Mr. Ohr to continue to pass information from Steele and Fusion to the FBI after it had suspended, and later terminated, Steele as a source? Why was that fact not disclosed to the FISC?" In other words, was Ohr part of an effort to mislead the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?
But what about Trump "accusing" (as Shear, Benner and Fandos put it) Bruce and Nellie Ohr "of having what he claims are indirect contact with Russians-apparently a reference to Mr. Steele's research." It's not clear yet exactly what work Nellie did for Steele while she was on the Fusion GPS payroll. But given that her academic speciality is Russia, it's hard to imagine her work didn't have something to do with Russia and Russians. Here are some of the confidential sources that Steele claims he used in compiling his opposition research documents on Trump: "a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure"; "a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin"; "a senior Kremlin official"; "a senior Russian financial official"; "two well-placed and established Kremlin sources"; "a Kremlin official involved in US relations"; "a well-placed Russian figure"; and "a senior member of the Russian Presidential Administration." If Steele is to be believed (admittedly, a big if) his information was collected from the Kremlin crowd. Nellie Ohr helped compile those Russian-sourced claims; Bruce Ohr assiduously funneled those Russian-sourced claims to the FBI. Was Trump really off-base, as the Times claims, when he said that the Ohrs were "dealing with, by the way, indirectly, Russians"?

And then there are the basic questions of governmental ethics. Isn't there something wrong with a senior DoJ official involving himself in an investigation that his wife is being paid to participate in? The New York Times is downright blasé about the question, dismissing it as "conservative allies of Mr. Trump" seizing "on the fact that Mr. Ohr was at the department at the same time that his wife, Nellie, was a contractor for Fusion GPS..."

But not every question is a political question. There are actual rules that govern ethics in the federal government. Consider 28 CFR Part 45, where the Justice Department codifies its employees' particular ethics obligations: "no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal ... relationship with ... Any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome." One of the examples of a prohibited "personal relationship" listed in the regulation is "spouse."

The employee, in such circumstances, must notify his supervisor. Ohr did not. An employee who has even just the appearance of a conflict can participate in an investigation only if he secures in writing a waiver in which his supervisor determines "after full consideration of all the facts and circumstances that: (1) The relationship will not have the effect of rendering the employee's service less than fully impartial and professional; and (2) The employee's participation would not create an appearance of a conflict of interest likely to affect the public perception of the integrity of the investigation or prosecution." Bruce Ohr neither received nor even requested such a waiver.

Which brings us to the New York Times's sanitized version of Bruce Ohr's recent downward career trajectory, courtesy of reporter Katie Benner: "Mr. Ohr once ran the Justice Department's organized crime and drug enforcement task force from the deputy attorney general's office, but now works in the criminal division on smaller legal matters." Somehow, Benner manages to describe Ohr's fall without mentioning the height from which he fell - associate deputy attorney general, one of the most senior positions at DoJ. Give Benner this much, though: At least she acknowledged that Ohr "once ran the Justice Department's organized crime and drug enforcement task force." Compare that with the phony way Shear, Benner, and Fandos describe that same position two days later: Ohr is "a career law enforcement official who has worked on antidrug and antigang initiatives at the Justice Department." Did we mention that he was little-known? At least if you read deep enough into the Shear, Benner and Fandos article you will finally find the admission that Ohr "was given a title demotion this year from his role leading the counternarcotics unit and"-here there's a little recycling from Benner's earlier piece-he now "works in the criminal division on smaller legal matters."

As for that demotion, the Times does its best to make it sound as though Ohr has simply been moving around within the department. But that's not what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has said. He told the House Intelligence Committee in June that "To my knowledge, [Ohr] wasn't working on the Russia matter." In other words, Ohr had kept his supervisor in the dark about his extracurricular activities. "When we learned of the relevant information, we arranged to transfer Mr. Ohr to a different office," Rosenstein said. The unsanitized version is the true one: Bruce Ohr was stripped of his position because he failed to tell his supervisor about his meetings with Steele.

Beyond the DoJ ethics regs, there is 18 USC section 208, the federal ethics law that governs acts tainted by "personal financial interest." The U.S. Office of Government Ethics explains: "the basic criminal conflict of interest statute prohibits an executive branch employee from participating personally and substantially in a particular Government matter that will affect his own financial interests, as well as the financial interests of his spouse..." The criminal penalties for violating 18 USC 208 are as many as five years in jail.

One might also note another penalty the Justice Department prescribes for even basic, non-criminal ethics violations. Here, courtesy of the DoJ Ethics Handbook: Any specified "prohibited conduct, and more, may be grounds for suspension or revocation of a [security] clearance."

The New York Times glibly dismisses the Ohr matter as a "conspiracy theory." It's even in the title of the Shear, Benner, and Fandos article. Conspiracy theories fester when information is hidden. They evaporate when the salient facts are exposed to sunlight. So, it is relevant that investigators such as Chuck Grassley have been pushing for the thoroughgoing release of unredacted documents regarding Bruce Ohr and other players in the election drama. Before this affair is over, chances are the Ohrs will be better-known, which will be welcome to those who simply want the facts, as opposed to those eager to spin the facts away.
Eric Felten is a Senior Writer at The Weekly Standard.