WASHINGTON — President Trump threatened on Friday to quickly revoke the security clearance of Bruce Ohr, a little-known Justice Department official, for the first time seeking to apply his power to cut access to sensitive information to a midlevel government worker rather than a prominent former national security official.
Departing the White House for a fund-raiser, the president told reporters that Mr. Ohr was “a disgrace” and said incorrectly that Mr. Ohr played a part in starting the investigation into Russian election interference and possible links to Trump associates.
“I suspect I’ll be taking it away very quickly,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Ohr’s security clearance, which gives government officials access to classified and sensitive information. Mr. Trump then shifted his attack, saying Mr. Ohr’s actions were “disqualifying for Mueller” and adding that Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia inquiry, has “a lot of conflicts.”
Mr. Trump began this week to use his power to void security clearances to punish perceived adversaries in the Russia investigation. His revocation of the clearance of John O. Brennan, a former C.I.A. director who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, drew condemnation from former national security officials.
But by targeting Mr. Ohr, the president moved beyond his bitter clash with high-profile antagonists like Mr. Brennan and reached deep into the bureaucracy. Mr. Trump also forced a difficult choice on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general: accept the actions of the president or defend a public employee’s right to the normal process of appeals.
Mr. Ohr, a career law enforcement official who has worked on antidrug and antigang initiatives at the Justice Department, has been targeted by conservative allies of Mr. Trump who have seized on the fact that Mr. Ohr was at the department at the same time that his wife, Nellie, was a contractor for Fusion GPS, a research firm that participated in compiling a dossier of damaging information about Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Conservatives have pointed out that emails show that in 2016, Mr. Ohr was in contact with Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled the dossier, in part by relying on Russian sources, and with Glenn R. Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS. Democrats have called the accusations ridiculous and overblown.
Mr. Ohr was in touch with Mr. Steele, a professional acquaintance whom he had known before Mr. Steele began working for Fusion GPS, through summer and fall 2016, including one conversation in which Mr. Steele said that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
Mr. Ohr eventually told the F.B.I. about his wife’s work and about his conversations with Mr. Steele, passing along information given to him by Mr. Steele that the F.B.I. had already received directly from the former spy. Mr. Steele had worked with the bureau on past cases.
And no evidence has emerged showing that Mr. Ohr or his wife played a role in starting the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation. Rather, it was contacts between a former Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, and Russian intermediaries that prompted the bureau to open the inquiry in late July 2016.
But Mr. Trump has embraced the theory, casting Mr. Ohr and his wife as central players in what he calls the “rigged witch hunt” and accusing the couple of having what he claims are indirect contacts with Russians — apparently a reference to Mr. Steele’s research.
“They should be looking at Bruce Ohr and his wife, Nellie, for dealing with, by the way, indirectly, Russians,” Mr. Trump said as he boarded Marine One for a fund-raising trip to the Hamptons. Asked about Mr. Ohr’s security clearance, Mr. Trump added: “I think Bruce Ohr is a disgrace. I suspect I will be taking it away very quickly.”
A lawyer for Mr. Ohr, Joshua Berman, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Former Justice Department officials said that it should be up to the department and its inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, to determine whether Mr. Ohr’s contact with Mr. Steele was improper. It is “not a matter to be judged by the president without Justice Department and inspector general input,” said Eugene Casey, the former chief of the F.B.I.’s Eurasian Organized Crime Unit.
Mr. Casey said that he worked closely with Mr. Ohr in 2005 and 2006, when Mr. Ohr led the department’s organized crime unit. “I knew Bruce to be a man of integrity,” Mr. Casey said. “Bruce was a committed partner in the F.B.I.’s struggle to counter Russian organized crime in the U.S. and abroad.”
A largely anonymous part of the 113,000-person Justice Department work force, Mr. Ohr, who did not work on counterintelligence, has not been found to violate the terms of his security clearance. He was given a title demotion this year from his role leading the counternarcotics unit and works in the criminal division on smaller legal matters. A Justice Department spokeswoman would not comment on Mr. Ohr, including on why he lost his more senior title.
“Without clearance, Bruce could lose his job,” said Julie Zebrak, the former deputy chief of staff to James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general under President Barack Obama.
Longstanding legal precedent gives presidents nearly unfettered power to confer and revoke security clearances — though Mr. Trump’s predecessors have always delegated that authority.
Security clearance determinations are usually made by lower-level officials, so it would be highly unusual for the president himself to decide whether Mr. Ohr kept his clearance. Mr. Ohr would typically be entitled to at least two levels of appeal to the revocation of his security clearance, including at least one in-person meeting with senior officials where he can argue why his revocation is not justified.
But the process for stripping a clearance is set forth in an executive order that Mr. Trump can amend, according to Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer specializing in security clearances. Mr. Ohr is also not entitled to judicial review because the process is entirely administrative.
In a 1988 case involving the Navy, the Supreme Court ruled that clearances are a function of the president’s role as commander in chief and that neither the courts nor Congress can intervene.
“That has evolved into the situation we have today whereby the president has nearly unfettered legal authority to determine who does or does not get a security clearance,” said Sean M. Bigley, a lawyer who also specializes in security clearances. “Security clearances are the Wild West of the law.”
Mr. Trump had included Mr. Ohr this week in a list of political critics, mostly former national security officials, whom the president said could soon lose their clearances. He has also attacked the Ohrs repeatedly on Twitter and expressed frustration that mainstream news organizations were not covering the saga in depth.
“The big story that the Fake News Media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy A.G. Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly,” the president wrote, misspelling Ms. Ohr’s name.
Republican lawmakers who strongly support Mr. Trump, mostly in the House, have circled Mr. Ohr and his wife for months, alleging connections to Mr. Steele and the Democrat-funded dossier they argue formed the basis for a politically motivated investigation into the Trump campaign.
Mr. Ohr’s time in the spotlight is unlikely to end soon. He is scheduled to appear Aug. 28 for a closed-door interview before the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees, according to two people familiar with the plans. Republicans on the committees are jointly investigating potential political bias within the F.B.I. and Justice Department.
Mr. Trump’s threat pleased allies on Capitol Hill. “It should have been gone a long time ago,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, who has led the charge against Mr. Ohr. “I don’t even see frankly why there is a debate. If the commander in chief of the United States thinks these people should have their clearance revoked, I don’t see why they should have their clearance.”
Democrats and former intelligence officials who served presidents of both parties rebuked Mr. Trump for his threats against Mr. Ohr and retraction of Mr. Brennan’s clearance.
“He is showing a willingness to shrink the team of national security experts to only Trump sycophants, and that makes us less safe,” Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, who has repeatedly locked horns with Republicans over the Russia investigation, said Friday in an interview. “We are reducing the number of advisers that can be called upon.”
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Friday that he planned to introduce an amendment next week to prevent the president “from punishing and intimidating his critics by arbitrarily revoking security clearances.” Republicans who control Congress have shown little interest in directly challenging Mr. Trump on security clearances or his broadsides against investigators.
And in a letter released Friday, 60 former C.I.A. officials said they objected to Mr. Trump’s threats to remove clearances of former security officials, adding their names to the chorus of senior intelligence officers condemning the revocation of Mr. Brennan’s clearance. The letter argued that “the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their view.”
Mr. Trump expressed no regret for removing Mr. Brennan’s clearance.
“I’ve gotten tremendous response for having done that because security clearances are very important to me,” he told reporters. He said that he had “never respected” Mr. Brennan, who the president falsely claimed had never officially reported concerns about Russian election interference before he left office.
“It’s a disgusting thing, frankly,” Mr. Trump said.
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