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Donald Trump

Russia had Trump ‘over a barrel’, claims former British spy

The man paid by the Democrats to compile a dossier on Donald Trump is said to have tried to alert the FBI and Justice Department when he believed the Republican presidential candidate was possibly compromised

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 8:52pm

A senior Justice Department lawyer says a former British spy told him at a breakfast meeting two years ago that Russian intelligence believed it had Donald Trump “over a barrel”, according to several people familiar with the encounter.

The lawyer, Bruce Ohr, also says he learned that a Trump campaign aide had met higher-level Russian officials than the aide acknowledged, the people said.

The details of the July 30, 2016, breakfast with Christopher Steele, which Ohr described to lawmakers this week in a private interview, reveal an exchange of potentially explosive information about Trump between two men the president has relentlessly sought to discredit.

They add to the public understanding of those pivotal summer months as the FBI and intelligence community scrambled to untangle possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. And they reflect the concern of Steele, a long-time FBI informant whose Democratic-funded research into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia was compiled into a dossier, that the Republican presidential candidate was possibly compromised and his urgent efforts to convey that anxiety to contacts at the FBI and Justice Department.

The people who discussed Ohr’s interview were not authorised to publicly discuss details of the closed session and spoke to Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Among the things Ohr said he learned from Steele during the breakfast was that an unnamed former Russian intelligence official said Russian intelligence believed “they had Trump over a barrel”, according to people familiar with the meeting.

It was not clear from Ohr’s interview whether Steele was directly told that or picked it up through his contacts, but the broader sentiment is echoed in Steele’s dossier.

Steele and Ohr, at the time of the election a senior official in the deputy attorney general’s office, had first met a decade earlier and bonded over a shared interest in international organised crime. They met several times during the presidential campaign, a relationship that exposed both men and federal law enforcement more generally to partisan criticism, including from Trump.

Republicans contend the FBI relied excessively on the dossier during its investigation and to obtain a secret wiretap application on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. They also say Ohr went outside his job description and chain of command by meeting Steele, including after his termination as an FBI source, and then relaying information to the FBI.

Trump in August proposed stripping Ohr, who until this year had been largely anonymous during his decades-long Justice Department career, of his security clearance and asked “how the hell” he remains employed. He has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

The president and some of his supporters in Congress have also accused the FBI of launching the entire Russia counter-intelligence investigation based on the dossier. But memos written by Republicans and Democrats and declassified this year show the probe was triggered by information the US government earlier received about the Russian contacts of Trump campaign adviser at the time, George Papadopoulos.

The FBI’s investigation was already under way by the time it received Steele’s dossier. The investigation’s lead agent, Peter Strzok, told lawmakers last month that “it was not Mr Ohr who provided the initial documents that I became aware of in mid-September”.

Ohr described his relationship with Steele during a House interview Tuesday.

One of the meetings he recounted was a Washington breakfast attended by Steele, a Steele associate and Ohr. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, who worked for Fusion GPS, the political research firm that hired Steele, attended at least part of it.

Beside the “over a barrel” remark, Ohr also told Congress that Steele told him that Page, a Trump campaign aide who travelled to Moscow that same month and whose ties to Russia attracted FBI scrutiny, met more-senior Russian officials than he had acknowledged.

The breakfast took place amid ongoing FBI concerns about Russian election interference and possible communication with Trump associates.

By that point, Russian hackers had allegedly penetrated Democratic email accounts, including that of the Clinton campaign chairman, and Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign associate, was said to have learned that Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails, court papers say.

That revelation prompted the FBI to open the counter-intelligence investigation on July 31, 2016, one day after the breakfast but based on entirely different information.

Ohr admitted to lawmakers he could not vouch for the accuracy of Steele’s information but has said he considered him a reliable FBI informant who delivered credible and actionable intelligence.

Ohr also acknowledged that he had not told superiors in his office, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, about his meetings with Steele because he considered the information inflammatory raw source material.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.