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U.S. Justice Department Official Grilled Over Role In Russia Investigation

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller

A U.S. Justice Department attorney who has drawn President Donald Trump's ire has been grilled for more than seven hours by congressional Republicans over his role in aiding the department's investigation of Russian ties with Trump's 2016 election campaign.

Bruce Ohr was grilled behind closed doors on August 28 by two Republican-led committees of the House of Representatives that are looking into what triggered the department's investigation in the months before the November presidential election.

Ohr has been the target of Republican suspicion and anger because of his relationship with Christopher Steele, a former British spy whose opposition research on Trump's Russia ties was compiled into a dossier which Ohr turned over to the FBI before the election.

Trump and some House Republicans say Steele's controversial dossier -- which contained a number of unproven allegations -- created a tainted pretext for the investigation, though department officials have said the probe began weeks before the bureau received Steele's documents.

Ohr did not respond to reporters' questions after his testimony on Capitol Hill on August 28. But several Republican representatives afterwards gave their version of what was said at the hearing, which was not attended by any Democratic members of Congress.

Representative Matt Gaetz said Ohr's testimony confirmed Republican suspicions that the Russia investigation started with an "excessive reliance" on the Steele dossier before it was turned over to Special Counsel Robert Mueller a year ago.

"And if the dossier truly is the rotten foundation upon which the Mueller church is built, I think that's an important revelation," Gaetz said.

Representative Darrel Issa told Fox News that Ohr showed he "has a poor memory."

"He seems to not remember a lot of details and, you know, poor memories are often claimed by people who want to stick to what they can say and not be caught in perjury," he said.

Democrats say Republicans are focusing on Ohr and his connections with Steele in an attempt to undermine the Russia investigation.

A Harvard-educated lawyer who was a U.S. prosecutor in Manhattan in the 1990s, Ohr at the time of the 2016 election was a high-ranking official in the deputy attorney general's office.

Ohr had met Steele a decade earlier, discovered they had a common interest in Russian organized crime, and developed a friendly relationship with the former British operative. Ohr for several years led a division of the department pursuing Russian organized crime figures,

Though Ohr did not handle national security or counterintelligence at the department, he nonetheless became a point of contact for Steele for sharing information in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Ohr has said he passed along tidbits he learned from Steele to the FBI after it started its Russia investigation.

Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, the political research firm that was paid by Democrats and hired Steele to compile the dossier on Trump, told lawmakers last year that he also met with Ohr at Steele's behest amid what he said was anxiety that the FBI was not taking seriously enough evidence of Russian interference in the presidential election, including some of the information that Steele had compiled.

Ohr also had a personal connection with Fusion, where his wife Nellie worked as a Russia specialist -- a connection Trump and his allies have seized on as they have alleged anti-Trump bias in the Russia investigation.

Ohr remains with the Justice Department, but amid the GOP criticism, he was demoted from his job in the deputy attorney general's office. But there are no signs of any effort by the department's leadership to punish him in the ways advocated by the president.

Trump has called for Ohr's firing and has threatened to strip him of his top-secret security clearance, which enables him to keep working at the department.

“I think that Bruce Ohr is a disgrace with his wife Nellie. For him to be in the Justice Department and doing what he is doing is a disgrace,” Trump told reporters this month.

"Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired?" Trump asked on Twitter on August 20.

With reporting by AP, CNN, and Fox News