The news that Justice Department official Bruce Ohr was intimately involved probing Russian organized crime–thus Ohr's longstanding relationship with former British spy Christopher Steele, whose own Russian sources led him to warn the FBI of an ongoing potential relationship between Russia and Donald Trump–goes a long way in explaining Trump's extremely focused wrath against Ohr, but the New York Times reports that Ohr was involved in one specific effort that cuts very close to Trump.
In September of 2016, Bruce Ohr was among the FBI officials that showed up "unannounced" to meet with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in New York. They had some very specific questions for him.
By then, they were already investigating possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and they pressed Mr. Deripaska about whether his former business partner, Mr. Manafort, had served as a link to the Kremlin during his time as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.
For context, Ohr and others had met with Deripaska in 2015 as part of an ongoing effort to "turn" the Russian oligarch, encouraging him to become a willing U.S. asset. It was a high-stakes, high-risk effort, but one that was apparently futile; Deripaska emphatically denied American assertions of Russian corruption, telling the Americans that their theories against his nation were off-base and refusing further meetings. But in 2016, Ohr and others approached him again, this time to ask specifically whether his former business partner and recently departed Trump campaign head Paul Manafort had been a go-between for Donald Trump and the Russian government.
That's a hell of a question for U.S. agents to ask a Putin-connected Russian kleptocrat who, at least according to the Times' sources, had already strongly rebuffed prior U.S. requests for cooperation.
At the least, this indicates just how seriously U.S. intelligence officials and the FBI were taking reports that the Trump campaign was willingly working with Russian espionage efforts against the United States. It was possible, certainly, that Deripaska's longrunning feud with Manafort could have provided investigators an opening: Perhaps Deripaska would be willing to throw a despised ex-partner under the bus? The U.S. had been pushing Deripaska to do exactly that for, apparently, some time.
But it just as easily could have done the opposite. If Deripaska was a Putin loyalist, or even someone who needed desperately to keep on Putin's good side, after prior suspicions from both governments that he might be willing to play both sides of the fence, the news that U.S. intelligence officials had discovered links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government would have been tremendously valuable information for the Russian government to have. Did Deripaska turn around and immediately report the FBI's questions about Manafort back to Moscow? It's distinctly possible.
It's also possible Deripaska offered the U.S. more information than sources are letting on, either in the first meeting or the second, but that the Times' sources are painting him as more uncooperative than he actually was in order to keep him from being, well, murdered. A new round of nasty sanctions against Deripaska this April would tend to argue against such theories, but one never knows.
This is a puzzling episode, at least so far. It seems an extraordinarily risky proposition for U.S. officials to confide their suspicions of Manafort's dealings to, of all people, a powerful Russian figure, especially one that had so strongly rejected their previous advances. While the Times and its sources characterizes the event as Ohr and other officials attempting to coax information out of Deripaska about a hated ex-partner, could it instead be interpreted as a warning to Russia that U.S. intelligence was on to them, only weeks before the November elections–an effort to at least drive the Russian efforts underground in the last month of the election, even at the cost of burning some of the intelligence the U.S. had gathered?
We still only know a tiny fraction of what information Russia investigators working under Robert Mueller have available to them; it's impossible to know just what evidence they have been able to gather in two years since the 2016 elections. But it's clear that as of September, 2016, U.S. officials had pressing enough evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government that they were probing even unreliable Russian figures in an effort to expand their knowledge of what was going on.
And that doesn't get as much attention as it should. The core investigation into Donald Trump is not whether Donald Trump obstructed justice, in his Flynn actions, his Comey firing, his musings about pardoning campaign allies or in his incessant public bleatings. Mueller is investigating whether U.S. persons, possibly within the Trump campaign, possibly including Donald Trump himself, knowingly collaborated with a Russian government attack on the United States elections. And even from what few public tidbits reporters have been able to pry loose, it's clear that there is in fact substantial evidence that that's exactly what happened.