WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey told Congress Monday that the agency has been conducting a criminal investigation since last summer into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government as Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
The bombshell confirmation drew a defiant responses from the White House, including a tweet from President Trump, who preemptively called the media’s focus on Comey’s Russia testimony “FAKE NEWS!’’
Comey also undermined Trump’s explosive but widely refuted assertion two weeks ago that former President Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump’s phones. Comey said he had no evidence that statement by the president was true.
“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully within the FBI,” Comey stated. National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, testifying alongside Comey Monday, said his agency also found no evidence to back up Trump’s claim.
Comey said that the FBI investigation into Trump campaign associates and the alleged coordination with Russia began in July and it is “impossible” to say how long it would take to conclude.
The drip-drip of disclosures and multiple investigations over Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election and persistent questions about Trump associates’ contacts with Russians have created an atmosphere of crisis around a sitting president that seems reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. But there is no clear, public evidence that the FBI probe and congressional investigations will lead back to Trump or his close associates.
Comey said he would not disclose details.
“Our ability to share details with the Congress and the American people is limited when those investigations are still open, which I hope makes sense,” Comey said. “We need to protect people’s privacy. We need to make sure we don’t give other people clues as to where we’re going. We need to make sure that we don’t give information to our foreign adversaries about what we know or don’t know.”
The damaging implications for Trump of Comey’s testimony was not lost on the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, David Nunes.
“There is a big grey cloud that you have now put over people who have very important work to do running the country,” Nunes told Comey at the end of the five-hour hearing, urging him to wrap up the investigation as quickly as possible.
The hearing also featured extended testimony from the two top law enforcement and intelligence officials about Russia’s desire to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Trump’s, once it began to appear last summer that Clinton would likely win the election. US intelligence officials previously have concluded that Russia was behind the hacking of Clinton and Democratic National Committee e-mails, which were subsequently made public by WikiLeaks.
Republicans on the committee repeatedly tried to mitigate the damaging nature of the hearing by denouncing media leaks about various aspects of the probe — including former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, disclosures that led to Flynn’s dismissal by Trump.
At the White House, reaction was dismissive to Comey’s disclosures.
The FBI is “continuing to look for something that doesn’t exist,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said at a press briefing, after the FBI director’s morning testimony. Spicer called Trump associates who have been cited in media reports as subjects of the FBI probe “hangers on’’ to the campaign, even though one of the people at the center of the speculation about Russian interference is Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who was instrumental in getting Trump the delegate votes needed for the GOP nomination. About Manafort, Spicer characterized him as someone who “played a very limited role for a very limited time” in the campaign.
“I think its fine to look into it but at the end of the day they’re going to come to the same conclusion everybody else has had. So you can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter,” he said.
Manafort issued a statment saying he had “no role or involvement in the cyberattack’’ and that he has “never spoken with any Russian Government officials” who claimed to be involved.
Spicer also said that Trump would neither apologize to Obama nor withdraw the wiretapping allegations, even though the FBI, Justice Department, and NSA now say they have no evidence the alleged wiretapping happened.
The president preemptively attacked the House Intelligence Committee hearing, tweeting from his personal Twitter account early Monday morning that “there is no evidence” he colluded with Russia, pointing to a statement earlier this month from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that no evidence was included in an intelligence community report on the subject.
The White House kept up the twitter defense during the hearing. At one point, the official @POTUS account tweeted falsely that Comey and Rogers had said “Russia did not influence electoral process.”
Rather, the two officials had offered a far more careful description, saying in response to questions from Nunes that there was no evidence Russia tampered with vote tallies in key states. Democratic Representative Jim Himesof Connecticut then read the @POTUS tweet to Comey, who said it did not accurately represent what he and Rogers had said.
In his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI director said the investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election “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.” He added that the FBI would also probe “whether any crimes were committed” as it does with all counter-intelligence investigations.
“This is really uncharted territory,” said Ryan Vogel, the Director for National Security Studies at Utah Valley University. “To my knowledge the FBI has never even acknowledged an investigation into a sitting president. … With this particular investigation we are looking at the legitimacy of this presidency,” Vogel said.
The hearing also forecast future political dangers for Trump, whose job approval rating slipped to 37 percent — the lowest at this stage of any modern presidency — in a Gallup tracking poll released Monday. The House Intelligence Committee’s probe is just one of several congressional investigations gearing up on Capitol Hill that promise to keep the cloud over the White House for months.
Comey declined to offer further details of the investigation, and repeatedly refused to comment on which individuals associated with the Trump campaign are involved, citing the investigation’s ongoing and classified nature. When lawmakers asked him about specific Trump associates, including Roger Stone, a long-time Trump adviser, and Manafort, Comey said he would not discuss any individuals at the public hearing.
On July 27, Trump gave a press conference in which he encouraged Russian hackers to find and publish e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, while Democrats were reeling from the publication of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
Clinton allies expressed frustration Monday that Comey was only now disclosing an investigation that began in July. The FBI director held a press conference in early July to describe the FBI investigation into her personal e-mail server, and another one in October. Though she was cleared of wrongdoing, both statements had the effect of keeping alive a story that was damaging to her campaign.
Paul Begala, a Clinton political ally, offered a sarcastic comparison of the Clinton disclosure and Monday’s description of the Russia investigation: “We don’t want to smear someone who’s not guilty of criminal wrongdoing says Comey, who smeared HRC, who was cleared of wrongdoing.’’
The Russia hearing riveted Washington Monday morning. It overshadowed Monday’s Senate confirmation hearing of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the divided US Supreme Court — an event that would normally dominate the political universe.
The hearing contained other humiliating moments for the Trump administration, beyond the top headlines that emerged.
California Representative Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat, pointed to an unsubstantiated claim floated by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that British intelligence helped Obama wiretap Trump.
The British have called that claim “nonsense and utterly ridiculous. Would you agree?” Schiff asked Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency.
“Yes, sir,” Rogers replied.
“Does it do damage to our relationship with one of our closest intelligence partners for the president to make a baseless claim that the British participated in a conspiracy against him?”
“I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours,” Rogers said, adding that he believed the US-UK relationship was strong enough to withstand the blow.