FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers testified during a rare public hearing by the House Select Intelligence Committee in an effort to clarify the facts surrounding the findings of an official U.S. intelligence investigation that Russia and its agents interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The two senior U.S. intelligence officials were also questioned about allegations that people who were associated with the Trump campaign or transition team had unauthorized contacts with Russian officials or their agents. They were also asked whether they knew of any evidence to support President Trump’s allegation that the Obama administration or other agents “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the transition.
Breaking previous silence on the subject, Comey publicly confirmed that the FBI is conducting an active investigation into whether any of Trump’s associates had improper contacts with Russian officials or agents during the campaign and the transition.
Comey also declared, “We [the FBI] have no information to support” Trump’s March 4 assertion on Twitter that President Obama tapped Trump Tower. “I’m not going to try and characterize the tweets themselves,” Comey said. “All I can tell you is we have no information that supports them.” Comey also said, “We have looked carefully inside the FBI, and agents found nothing to support those claims.”
Under rather hostile questioning by the ranking Democrat on the panel, Congressman Adam Schiff, Comey said no president had the authority to order such surveillance. He added that the Justice Department had asked him to also tell the committee that it has no such information, either.
Admiral Rogers added that the NSA had no information to support a media report claiming that Trump was wiretapped by British intelligence, or any other foreign service, at President Obama’s request.
LOOKING INTO ALLEGED TRUMP LINKS TO RUSSIA
Comey characterized the probe as a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The probe extends to the nature of any links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.
Comey added that the FBI is also “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 FBI director said that he had asked for and received permission from senior Justice Department officials to disclose the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the election. Comey acknowledged that it was unusual for the FBI to confirm an ongoing investigation, especially counterintelligence investigations which involve national security. “But in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”
Comey added that the investigation of Russian meddling began last July, yet it has not uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing by members of Trump’s team.
He claimed that his statement confirming the current investigation differed from his statement last July, when he announced that Mrs. Clinton would be spared prosecution on criminal charges after the FBI concluded its investigation into her misuse of a private e-mail server.
COMEY REFUSES TO TALK ABOUT INDIVIDUAL SUSPECTS
Throughout the five-hour-long committee hearing, Comey repeatedly declined to answer questions about specific individuals who were in the Trump campaign and who are allegedly suspected of having colluded with the Russians.
Early in the hearing he declared, “Because it is an open ongoing investigation and is classified, I cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining. At the request of congressional leaders, we have taken the extraordinary step in coordination with the Department of Justice of briefing this Congress’ leaders, including the leaders of this committee, in a classified setting in detail about the investigation but I can’t go into those details here.”
This was particularly frustrating for Democrats on the panel who tried to pressure Comey into commenting on the Russian contacts by former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and three several other former Trump campaign associates with known Russian connections.
NO EVIDENCE OF TRUMP COLLUSION HAS BEEN FOUND
While Comey’s announcement that Russian contacts with the Trump camp are under FBI investigation gave fodder to Trump’s critics, White House aides were ebullient over a statement by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that his panel hadn’t seen any evidence to indicate collusion between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign.
Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer noted at the Monday White House press briefing that former acting CIA chief Michael Morell and former director of national intelligence James Clapper also agreed with Nunes in saying they had seen no evidence of members of the Trump team colluding with the Russians.
At an event sponsored by the Cipher Brief, an intelligence web site, Morell said, “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all.
“There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”
Morell was in line to become Hillary Clinton’s CIA director if she had won the election. He is deeply skeptical about the notorious dossier of fake evidence against Trump that has been much discussed by Trump’s enemies in the media but never verified.
He dismissed the dossier, whose information was obtained from paid Russian sources, as fundamentally unreliable. “Unless you know the sources, and unless you know how a particular source acquired a particular piece of information, you can’t judge the information, you just can’t,” Morell said.
In his press briefing Monday, Trump spokesman Spicer downplayed the roles in the campaign played by those now under investigation by the FBI for possible collusion with the Russians. Spicer described Flynn as a “volunteer of the campaign” rather than Trump’s chief military advisor. Spicer also claimed that Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for the months leading up to the Republican National Convention, “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” Manafort was forced to resign as Trump’s campaign manager last summer after the media attacked him for his previous work as an advisor to pro-Russian politicians in Eastern Europe.
REPUBLICAN CHAIRMAN NUNES ALONE DEFENDING TRUMP
In his opening statement, Nunes said, “The fact that Russia hacked U.S. election-related databases comes as no shock to this committee. We have been closely monitoring Russia’s aggressions for years… However, while the indications of Russian measures targeting the U.S. presidential election are deeply troubling, one benefit is already clear. It has focused wide attention on the pressing threats posed by the Russian autocrat [Putin]. In recent years, committee members have issued repeated and forceful pleas for stronger action against Russian belligerence. But the Obama administration was committed to the notion, against all evidence, that we could ‘reset’ relations with Putin, and it routinely ignored our warnings.”
“Let me be clear,” he said. “We know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
Nunes said he is focused on tracking down the leaks of classified information to the media. “We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so these individuals can be brought to justice,” he said.
DEMOCRAT SCHIFF CITES CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION
In his opening statement, Democrat Congressman Schiff said, “We will never know whether the Russian intervention was determinative in such a close election. Indeed it is unknowable in a campaign in which so many small changes could have dictated a different result. . .
“What does matter is this. The Russians successfully meddled in our democracy, and our intelligence agencies have concluded that they will do so again.”
Schiff added: “Most important, we do not yet know whether the Russians had the help of U.S. citizens, including people associated with the Trump campaign. Many of Trump’s campaign personnel, including the president himself, have ties to Russia and Russian interests. This is, of course, no crime. On the other hand, if the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”
NEW INTELLIGENCE FINDS NO EVIDENCE OF TRUMP WRONGDOING
On Friday, the Justice Department delivered documents to the House intelligence committee in response to its request for copies of all intelligence and criminal wiretap orders and applications relevant to the investigation.
In news interviews on Sunday, Nunes and Schiff revealed their contrasting interpretations of the new information they had received on Friday. “There was circumstantial evidence of collusion; there is direct evidence, I think, of deception,” Schiff said, apparently referring to Flynn’s failure to accurately describe his conversations with the Russian ambassador. ‘’There’s certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation.”
Nunes said: “For the first time the American people, and all the political parties now, are paying attention to the threat that Russia poses. We know that the Russians were trying to get involved in our campaign, like they have for many decades. They’re also trying to get involved in campaigns around the globe and over in Europe.”
RUSSIAN HACKERS DID NOT CHANGE CRUCIAL STATE VOTE TALLIES
Nunes scored some political points during Monday’s hearing when he asked Admiral Rogers to confirm the January report which concluded that the Russian interference did not change the vote counts in the states which decided the outcome of the election. Nunes then asked Rogers specifically about the integrity of the vote counts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. For each state, Rogers said, “I have nothing generated by the national security industry, sir” to indicate that any votes were changed in those pivotal states.
Some of the toughest questions Comey answered were posed by South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor who led the House Benghazi inquiry into Mrs. Clinton’s responsibility as Secretary of State for failing to heed pleas for security assistance from consulate personnel before the attack, and her role in collaborating with an Obama White House coverup of the planned terrorist nature of the attack which killed four Americans.
Gowdy pressed Comey to say whether the FBI was seeking to identify and prosecute the person who violated federal law by identifying National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to the media as the American whose conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak were wiretapped. Comey refused to answer the question because he said he did not want to validate media accounts based upon leaked secret surveillance information.
COMEY’S DOUBLE STANDARD
Comey was later criticized for applying a double standard by confirming an investigation which cast a shadow of suspicion of collusion over the Trump team while refusing to confirm that he would pursue the enemies of Trump who criminally leaked Flynn’s name for publication by the Washington Post.
Gowdy emphasized that with all of the unproven allegations of collusion by members of the Trump team with the Russians to fix the election, the only federal crime that we know was committed was the leaking of Flynn’s identity to the Washington Post as the man on the tapped phone call with the Russian ambassador, presumably by a Trump opponent.
During the hearing, Gowdy, Nunes and other Republican committee members kept coming back to the cascade of illegal leaks of secret information to the media which were slanted to suggest that members of the Trump campaign were colluding with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election.
Nunes asked Comey to confirm that the leaks were a felony under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Act (FISA), which defines the ground rules that govern the surveillance of foreign agents on U.S. soil or of U.S. persons overseas. “Yes,” Comey answered. “In addition to being a breach of our trust with the FISA court.”
Gowdy got Comey to agree that leaking the secret information to the media is a felony punishable with a 10-year jail sentence, “and rightfully so,” the FBI director added.
ONLY CRIMES HERE WERE THE LEAKS OF SECRETS TO THE MEDIA
The only real crime that has been detected in this entire scandal so far was the leak that was published in the February 9 story by The Washington Post which revealed that Flynn was wiretapped discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in late December, before Trump took office. The Post story said that the phone calls were monitored under routine, court-approved surveillance of Kislyak’s calls. Flynn’s failure to accurately convey the contents of that call to Vice President Mike Pence ultimately led to Flynn’s forced resignation, but there is no evidence that he did anything criminal.
There have been all kinds of other leaks of secret surveillance information published by the media indicating contacts between others in the Trump camp and Russian agents. But leading U.S. intelligence officials and both Nunes and Schiff agree that they have seen no evidence whatsoever that any of Trump’s people colluded with Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the election.
TRUMP DEMANDS A PROBE INTO THE LEAKS
This was also President Trump’s main concern. Early Monday morning, hours before the hearing began, Trump posted a series of tweets claiming Democrats “made up” the allegations of Russian contacts with his campaign in an attempt to discredit the GOP during the presidential campaign.
Trump dismissed allegations that he’s tied to the Russians as “FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!”
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” Trump continued.
He also urged the FBI investigators to focus on the illegal disclosures of classified material to the media. “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” Trump tweeted. “Must find leaker now!”
Under questioning by GOP Congressman Tom Rooney, the NSA’s Admiral Rogers clarified the agency’s safeguards for the identities of Americans whose conversations were picked up through “incidental collection” in the course of surveillance of other targets. He stressed that the identities of U.S. persons are disclosed only on a “valid, need to know” basis, and usually only when there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a potential threat to the United States.
He added that there is a total of about 20 people in the NSA who have the authority to “unmask” the identity of such an American. That relatively small number of potential suspects should make it easier for the FBI to identify the culprit who violated federal law by unmasking Flynn’s identity as the person who talked to Kislyak and then passed that information to the Washington Post.
Rogers also said that the illegal leaking of the identity of Americans caught speaking with people under surveillance would “hurt” intelligence collection by security agencies.
The FBI probe includes an investigation into the Russian hacking attacks on American political organizations, such as the computers of the Democrat National Committee (DNC) and the stealing of emails from the account of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. These led to disclosures intended by the Kremlin to manipulate public opinion and influence the election’s outcome.
WHY DID PUTIN TARGET CLINTON?
In January, the intelligence community delivered a report on the election concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to not only undermine the legitimacy of the American election process but also harm the campaign of Hillary Clinton, boosting Trump’s chances of winning.
It identified hackers working for Russian spy agencies as those who penetrated the DNC’s computers, starting in 2015, and relayed Podesta’s embarrassing political emails to WikiLeaks for publication on a daily basis during the final month of the election campaign.
In his testimony on Monday, Comey repeated the conclusion of the January report that one of Putin’s goals in ordering the interference in the election was to help Trump defeat Clinton.
“They [the Russians] wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her and help him,” Comey said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.”
Putin has been said to hold a grudge against Clinton because when she was Obama’s secretary of state, she encouraged the 2012 Moscow pro-democracy street protests against Putin’s reelection as Russia’s president. Putin could have ordered the collection of damaging information about Mrs. Clinton in order to intimidate her after she won the presidential election, which almost everyone had believed was inevitable. It is hard to remember now how everyone in government, politics and the media believed Clinton would definitely win the presidency.
Putin is a bully and that’s his style. Putin was probably as surprised as everyone else by Trump’s victory. It is therefore not likely that he would risk getting caught collaborating with a sure loser, which was the widespread view of Trump before the election.
As the hearing closed, Chairman Nunes urged Comey to conclude the investigation into allegations of collusion by the Trump team as quickly as possible and release its results to the public as he did with the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s email server. Until then, Nunes noted, the investigation will hang like a threatening cloud over the Trump administration.
REPUBLICANS FACING A CHOICE
Nunes was the only Republican in the hearing who was willing to actively defend Trump’s accusations, from which the president refuses to back down, that his New York headquarters was put under surveillance. Many Republicans appear to be embarrassed by Trump’s more provocative tweets, but he is proving himself to be the most dynamic and effective leader that the GOP has had in a generation.
Trump is now in the midst of keeping his most important promises. He has appointed an outstanding conservative judge to Anton Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. He is threading the political needle by personally shepherding the passage of a measure to repeal and replace Obamacare. He is preparing a massive tax cut and tax reform measure to reignite American prosperity, and he really is beginning to drain the swamp in Washington.
This presents embarrassed Republicans with a stark choice. They can join with the Trump naysayers and give up on achieving their conservative goals for another generation, or they can accept Trump as an imperfect president and get behind his very serious effort to implement his plans to make America great again.