An FBI agent’s newly released testimony undercuts top Justice Department official Bruce Ohr’s denial of a conflict of interest between his Trump-Russia efforts and his wife’s work for Fusion GPS, producer of the discredited Steele dossier.
The agent, Michael Gaeta, told congressional probers that Ohr had pressed him to make sure the FBI was “doing something” with the dossier. According to Gaeta, Ohr pushed Steele’s collection of memos alleging nefarious ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in part because Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for the same company that had hired ex-British spy Christopher Steele.
Gaeta’s testimony was released last week along with 56 other Trump-Russia interviews conducted by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He recalled an August 2016 phone call from Ohr.
“August, he calls me and says, ‘Have you seen this stuff from Steele?’ – Chris or Steele, whatever he says. I said yes,” Gaeta recalled. “And so now I assume he had either spoken to Steele or had seen him. I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask.” Ohr, the agent said, wasted no time in making a request: “And he goes, ‘We just want to make sure – we, or me and my bosses – want to make sure the FBI is handling it and doing something about it.’”
Gaeta told Ohr, “I am putting it in the hands of this unit at headquarters who’s going to look at it.”
“Okay, good,” was Ohr’s reply. “We just want to make sure.”
Gaeta’s description of Ohr’s active role in pushing the dossier contrasts with Ohr’s testimony before Congress describing a more disinterested role as intermediary between the FBI and his wife’s employer, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Asked if his role represented a conflict of interest, Ohr said it did not because “I was not part of the investigation.”
“As I saw it,” Ohr testified, “I was receiving information that I passed to people who were working on the investigation, and they decided what to do with it. I don’t know what they did with it.”
Ohr told lawmakers he was in the dark. “I don’t know what investigations specifically were existing at the time. I didn’t have any input or work on those investigations.”
Ohr was demoted in 2017 because of his contacts with Fusion GPS.
The testimony of Gaeta – whose name is redacted in the testimony but has been confirmed by RealClearInvestigations – raises new questions about the extent of Ohr’s role in advancing Trump-Russia conspiracy theories across the government. Gaeta’s interview is of interest because of his long history with both Ohr and Steele, a former British intelligence agent who formed a private investigative firm in 2009.
Gaeta has known Steele since 2010 when they were introduced to one another by Ohr. It was not a random encounter. Ohr appears to have been drumming up business for Steele, having traveled to London to host a meeting between Gaeta and Steele at which Steele pitched having his new private intelligence firm do work for the FBI.
Over several years Steele provided Gaeta with reports and leads. And so when Steele called at the beginning of July 2016 to say he had important information, Gaeta flew to London. During a meeting at Steele’s office on July 5, Steele gave Gaeta pieces of what would ultimately become known as the “dossier,” including the report claiming there was a video recording of Russian prostitutes urinating for Donald Trump’s entertainment.
After the meeting, Gaeta wasn’t sure what to do with the documents. He wanted to get the Steele reports to the right people at the Bureau, but didn’t know who the right people would be. He was reluctant to ask around, for fear of spreading word of the “explosive” information. Finally, in the middle of July, Gaeta reached out to a trusted colleague in the New York field office.
“I told him about the information; he read it,” Gaeta told lawmakers. “And then I told him my idea of really surgically trying to determine who should see this.” Gaeta would send the Steele material to the New York office for a decision on how to get it to officials in Washington. Gaeta later heard the material had ended up with a secretive counterintelligence group operating out of FBI headquarters in Washington.
But, his testimony suggests, the process wasn’t moving fast enough for Steele and Fusion GPS. Hence, the August phone call from Ohr telling Gaeta, “We just want to make sure” the information was being acted upon.
If the “we” were actually Ohr and his official bosses – the deputy attorney general and the attorney general – it wouldn’t be clear why those top law enforcement officials would need to rely on a Europe-based FBI agent to give the Steele documents to investigators in Washington. In Gaeta’s telling, Ohr would later leave the implication that the “we” was Ohr and Fusion GPS.
With promises of more information on Trump and Russia to come, Steele was made an official source for the FBI and was promised payments. Gaeta was Steele’s “handling agent.” And so it fell to Gaeta to confront Steele when, days before the election, an article appeared in Mother Jones magazine with information from the dossier.
Gaeta called Steele: “Did you do this?”
Steele said, “Yes, I did,” and explained he was angry that the FBI had been investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails when it should have been focused on Trump and Russia.
Gaeta dropped Steele on the spot: “I said, ‘Everything is going to change now.’ I said, ‘You’re no longer working to get information on our behalf, you’re no longer to go out, and we are no longer tasking you. In addition, you’re not going to be paid, and the relationship is going to end.’”
After that confrontation, Gaeta called Ohr and told him what had happened.
Just a week later, on Election Day, Gaeta was back in Washington for a meeting and encountered Ohr in a restaurant across the street from FBI headquarters.
“What did he say to you?” the Republican interviewer asked Gaeta.
“So, the first thing he said was -– he apologized for introducing me to Steele because –”
“He – sorry?” the interviewer interrupted.
“He apologized for introducing me to Steele, kind of like half-joking, because of all the stuff that was happening at that point,” Gaeta told lawmakers. “And, you know, I wasn’t looking to delve into any substantive conversation with him about it, and I don’t think he was. But at a certain point in that conversation – the whole conversation was short; it didn’t last long – but he mentioned something about his wife working for GPS.”
The interviewer asked, “Fusion GPS?”
“He said GPS.”
“Okay. What did you take that to mean?” was the next question.
“At that point, l didn’t know what he meant by it,” Gaeta replied. “I wasn’t sure. And I wasn’t going to start delving into it. I just kind of shook my head. And that was really it.”
Author: Eric Felten
Picture: Bruce Ohr, associate deputy attorney general with the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces of the U.S. Department of Justice, presents “Developing Global Corruption against Corruption and Transnational Organized Crime” during the Global Countering Transnational Organized Crime Alumni Community of Interest Workshop Feb. 4, at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. (Marshall Center photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amanda Moncada/RELEASED). Public domain.