Did Bruce Ohr’s Testimony Defuse a NYT Bombshell?

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As the congressional testimony of key figures in the so-called Russiagate scandal becomes public, some of it provides a basis to question the veracity of news reporting that often appeared to give cover for the same officials who participated in the scheme. For example, the recently-released testimony of Bruce Ohr does not substantiate a bombshell September 2018 New York Times story that claimed Ohr was leading a secret operation to turn Russian oligarchs connected to Vladimir Putin into FBI assets.

Ohr, a former top official at the Obama Justice Department, testified behind closed doors last August to the House Judiciary Committee. Ohr has emerged as the conduit between Democratic political operatives working on behalf of Hillary Clinton and James Comey’s FBI just before the 2016 presidential election. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, had been hired by Fusion GPS to dig up Russia-related dirt on candidate Donald Trump. Working with her on that project: Dossier author Christopher Steele, a former British agent and now London-based consultant who happened to have a decade-long friendship with Bruce Ohr.

Congressional investigators wanted to know how and why Ohr passed along political propaganda from Fusion GPS—which had been hired by both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National committee—to the FBI in the summer of 2016. Ohr and Steele had extensive communications in 2016 and early 2017, including dozens of emails and text messages.

Some of those emails were leaked to journalists before Ohr’s testimony; the back-and-forth between Ohr and Steele offered damning proof that one of the top officials in the Justice Department was conspiring with Clinton-DNC paid political operatives to seed the Trump-Russia collusion hoax. In fact, a breakfast meeting between the Ohrs and Steele on July 30, 2016  occured the day before the FBI reportedly opened up the counterintelligence probe into the Trump campaign. The dots had been connected.

Ah, not so fast, reported the New York Times a few days after Ohr appeared before Congress. The real reason Ohr and Steele were collaborating before the election, according to the Times, was that Ohr was spearheading a covert operation to “flip” Putin-connected billionaires.

“Agents Tried to Flip Russian Oligarchs. The Fallout Spread to Trump,” screamed the headline for a lengthy September 1, 2018 article by reporters Kenneth Vogel and Matthew Rosenberg.

The piece, largely based on anonymous sources, centered on Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who has been in and out of trouble with the U.S. government for years. “[The Justice Department] signaled that they might provide help with his trouble in getting visas for the United States or even explore other steps to address his legal problems,” the Times reporters wrote. “In exchange, they were hoping for information on Russian organized crime and, later, on possible Russian aid to President Trump’s 2016 campaign.”

The operation, according to the Times, began in 2014 and continued through the fall of 2016 when “efforts to cultivate Deripaska appear to have fizzled . . . amid worsening relations between the United States and Russia. The systematic effort to win the cooperation of the oligarchs, which has not previously been revealed, does not appear to have scored any successes.” The details of the failed mission remain classified, according to the Times.

The Times story immediately went viral, with follow-up coverage on cable news outlets and major newspapers. But on its face, the story seemed highly implausible, as I noted after it was published. Why would Deripaska, a man with enormous wealth and international political connections, turn on Putin and help James Comey’s FBI?

Further, the Times gave extremely short-shrift to the fact that Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS. The story mentions it only in passing to note she “worked as a contractor at the same research firm that produced the dossier.”

The Times also failed to highlight that Deripaska had been a client of Steele’s London-based consulting firm for at least a few years. Again, the Times’ only mention of that highly relevant connection is that Steele “had tracked Russian organized crime and business interests for private clients, including one of Deripaska’s lawyers.” (In one email, Steele tells Ohr he wants to talk about “our favorite business tycoon,” referring to Deripaska.)

It would have been in Ohr’s best interest to defend his questionable pre-election contacts and meetings with Steele—now the subject of a criminal referral at the Justice Department—as his attempt to get sensitive information about the Kremlin from a Putin pal. Ohr would have no reason not to explain his actions, since the effort ultimately was unsuccessful.

But nowhere in Ohr’s 268-page testimony does he mention an “oligarch-flipping” plan. Ohr doesn’t even try to conceal any such top-secret plot under the guise of classified information. Ohr never mentions anything that would even suggest such a scheme was in motion at the time.

In fact, Ohr told Congress he was unsure why Steele contacted him in early 2016 to notify him that Deripaska would be in the United States at some point that year. “I don’t know exactly what he was thinking,” he told Congress. “He was just letting me know in case we wanted to do something, I suppose. I think my response was basically, ‘Thank you. I’ll keep an eye on it,’ or something like that.”

Ohr also was not aware that the FBI visited Deripaska in New York in September 2016 to question him about election meddling. “That’s news to me,” he testified. Now, one would assume that the man in charge of the government’s super-secret plot to flip Russian oligarchs would have arranged the meeting, or at least have known it was happening. But Ohr told Congress he had clue about it.

Ohr wasn’t the only one in the dark. He testified that he concealed his extensive contact with Steele from his boss, then-deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “I did not inform Sally Yates that I was talking to the FBI and that I was receiving information from Chris Steele,” Ohr told Representative John Ratcliffe (R-Texas).

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like the behavior of a patriotic law enforcement chief working to get critical information on a global foe attempting to disrupt a major election. It sounds more like the behavior of someone with something to hide.

What Ohr’s testimony does reveal is that his contacts with Steele were central to a scandalous political operation, not the inner-workings of international espionage. Time and again, Ohr confirmed how he acted as a pass-through between Democratic operatives and the Justice Department, ensuring that political dirt funded by the Clinton campaign would be used against the Trump campaign just a few months before the election.

To be fair, the absence of any mention of the oligarch-flipping plan in Ohr’s testimony isn’t definitive proof that there wasn’t such a plan. (In a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Treasury Department last month, Deripaska also does not mention any attempt by the FBI to turn him into an informant.)

When reached last month via email, Vogel told me that “we stand by our reporting and our story.”

But the Times piece must be viewed with a broader lens. Since the inception of the Trump-Russia collusion hoax, news outlets such as the Times have been willing accomplices either in promoting conspiracy theories or justifying/ignoring the bigger scandal, which is how the Obama administration weaponized federal power against Donald Trump and his campaign.

The “oligarch-flipping” article appears to be another example of the Trump-hating media running cover for bad actors such as Ohr and Steele. It does not bode well for fair coverage as the second phase of the Russiagate investigation gets underway.

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Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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