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The FBI Is On The Case — And Other Takeaways From The House Intel Hearing

Mar 20, 2017
Originally published on March 21, 2017 9:25 am

At an hours-long public hearing on Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and he pushed back against President Trump's allegations that he was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence also heard from Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers about Russia's general attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election and the controversial, possibly illegal leak of classified information to the press.

The congressional intelligence committees rarely hold public hearings — their work is often done behind closed doors. And you can see why, as Comey and Rogers responded to question after question by saying they weren't able to comment in an unclassified setting. They frequently limited themselves to confirming the contents of a report issued in January, which said the Kremlin actively attempted to help Trump during the presidential campaign.

But despite the difficulty of discussing classified data in an open hearing, there were a number of revelations. Here are a few highlights:

Yes, there is an FBI investigation

Until Monday, the FBI had not publicly confirmed it was investigating allegations that officials from the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin as Russia was waging an influence campaign to try to shape the U.S. election.

At the hearing, Comey said:

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

"As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed."

The investigation has been underway since July, Comey said, and he could not provide a timetable for when it would end.

No evidence of Trump's wiretapping allegations — and not for lack of looking

Earlier this month, Trump tweeted that "Obama had my 'wires tapped.' " His administration has stood by the explosive, unfounded allegation even as lawmaker after lawmaker has stepped forward to say there is absolutely no evidence to support it.

The White House tried to expand the definition of "wiretapping" to include all forms of surveillance, but there has been no evidence to support even the broader claim.

Comey said, "I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI" and the broader Justice Department. No president has the authority to unilaterally order a wiretap anyway, he said.

Over the past few weeks the White House shifted to claiming that a British intelligence agency was surveilling Trump Tower on Obama's orders — another claim devoid of evidence that has also been strongly rebutted at the highest levels.

Rogers was asked if he had ordered such surveillance. "No, sir, nor would I," Rogers said, noting that would violate a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement.

Misleading presidential tweets continue, even midhearing

Several past tweets, like the ones mentioned above, were occasionally introduced into the hearing for discussion — but a very recent tweet was also raised as an issue.

Jim Himes, D-Conn., read aloud an @POTUS tweet from midhearing, about the hearing, claiming that Comey and Rogers had testified that "Russia did not influence [the] electoral process."

In fact, the two men had testified that there was no evidence Russia directly changed votes, like by hacking voting machines. But as they later noted, they didn't comment on the question of overall influence — their agencies have not evaluated whether Russia had successfully affected the election.

"It certainly wasn't our intention to say that today," Comey said, when asked to essentially live-fact-check the presidential Twitter account. "We don't have any information on that subject."

Another tweet from the presidential Twitter account noted Comey was "refusing to deny" a briefing to Obama. That, too, was misleading; Comey repeatedly told the lawmakers not to read too much into his inability to comment on a question because there were so many constraints on what he was allowed to discuss.

Lawmakers divided on prioritizing Russian activity or U.S. leaks

We should note, as a caveat, that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said it was important both to investigate Russia's activities and to protect classified data.

But there was an obvious difference in how the committee's Democratic and Republican lawmakers approached the questioning.

The Democrats, for the most part, emphasized the possibility of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. They acknowledged a lack of hard evidence but said that is a reason for more investigation, not less.

Ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., exemplified this approach in his lengthy opening remarks. He included a timeline of interactions between the campaign and Russia and questioned whether changes to the GOP platform, among other things, were "coincidences" or signs of collusion. If the latter, Schiff said, that would be a "shocking betrayal of democracy."

(Trump has long denied such allegations. On Monday, Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager who was among the people named by Schiff and other Democrats as having suspicious ties to Russia, issued a statement saying there is "constant scrutiny and innuendo" around his connections to Moscow, but "no facts.")

The Republicans, in general, focused instead on the leaking of classified information to the media — noting that there may or may not have been crimes committed through collusion with Russia but there have apparently been crimes in the "felonious release of classified material," as Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., put it.

For example: The Democrats frequently returned to false statements by former national security adviser Michael Flynn concealing the fact that he had spoken with the Russian ambassador, and the question of other ties between Flynn and Russia.

"Isn't the American public right to be concerned about Mr. Flynn's conduct, his failure to disclose that contact with the Russian ambassador, his attempts to cover it up and what looks like the White House's attempts to sweep this under the rug?" Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., asked.

Republican members of the committee, meanwhile, focused instead on the question of who had "unmasked" Flynn's identity in documents revealing those conversations. They asked who would have the ability to reveal Flynn's name, and what their motivation might be.

If a U.S. person's name "has been unmasked and disseminated by intelligence community officials, would that leaking to the press hurt or help our ability to conduct national security matters?" Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., asked. Rogers responded, "Hurt."

More to come, on every front

There are multiple investigations into Russia's actions during 2016. There's the House committee investigation, which is continuing — a second hearing is scheduled for March 28.

There's the parallel investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as by the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. And, of course, there's the just-confirmed investigation by the FBI.

Meanwhile, both Comey and Rogers say they expect Russia will continue to attempt to influence elections, both in the U.S. and abroad.

"I think we have to assume they're coming back," Comey said.

"I fully expect them to continue this level of activity," Rogers said.

Both men declined to comment on whether Russia's attempt to influence the U.S. elections had actually changed the outcome.

But they said it was definitely a "success," in Russia's eyes, on at least one front — it "introduced chaos and division and discord, and sowed doubt," as Comey put it.

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