FBI Director James Comey on Monday confirmed for the first time that the bureau is investigating whether Donald Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russian government last year as part of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“I’ve 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,” Comey told members of the House Intelligence Committee in a prepared opening statement. “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.”
Though it was not surprising, Comey’s decision to publicly confirm a criminal investigation of possible collusion between the sitting president and a foreign power was a stunning revelation. Under questioning, he said that the FBI began the investigation in late July, a disclosure that likely will inflame criticism from Democrats that Comey chose to publicly discuss the bureau’s inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails during the campaign but did not reveal it was also investigating the Trump campaign and Russian meddling.
The FBI director warned that he would not be able to discuss the specifics of the probe, including which officials in the Trump campaign or administration might be under surveillance.
“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,” Comey said. “I can’t go into those details here. I know that is externally frustrating to some folks, but it is the way it has to be.”
Yet the FBI director was willing to directly rebut President Trump’s tweeted claims that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” him at Trump Tower. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, read aloud to Comey several of Trump’s tweets over the last several weeks, including the wiretap charge. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” the director said. He then explained that he had surveyed the entire Justice Department and that the department more broadly “has no information to support those tweets.”
Schiff asked Comey to comment on Trump’s accused that Obama’s alleged surveillance was akin to “McCarthyism.”
“Were you engaged in McCarthyism?” Schiff asked.
“I try very hard not to engage in any ’isms of any kind, including McCarthyism,” Comey replied, to laughter from the hearing room.
Hours before Comey’s testimony, President Trump vented his frustration with the scrutiny of his campaign’s contacts with Russia in a series of tweets. “James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia,” he wrote, referring to the former director of national intelligence. “This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!”
After Comey finished his opening statement, the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, focused not on the FBI’s investigation of Trump and Russia and instead asked Admiral Mike Rogers, the NSA director, whether there was any evidence that Russian meddling had directly affected the 2016 vote in a number of key states.
“No, I do not,” Rogers replied, “but I would highlight we are foreign intelligence organization, not a domestic intelligence organization, so it is fair to say we are not the best organization to provide a more complete answer.”
As the hearing proceeded, a pattern developed in the questioning by Republican and Democratic members of the intelligence committee. GOP lawmakers pressed Comey on the danger of leaking details of investigations and surveillance to national security and pressed him on whether the FBI would prosecute officials who disclosed classified information about Trump officials, particularly the former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Democrats focused on the investigation itself. Though Comey warned lawmakers he would not discuss specific officials, Democrats asked him about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his ties to Russian oligarchs, along with Trump adviser Roger Stone and his contacts with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker that took credit for infiltrating the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. “I’m not going to talk about any particular person here today,” Comey said in reference to Stone.
Several Republicans tried to get Comey to confirm which top Obama administration officials would have had access to classified material related to the FBI’s investigation or U.S. intelligence gathering, an apparent attempt to narrow down who might have leaked details of the inquiry to reporters. Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina specifically asked about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and CIA Director John Brennan.
While acknowledging those officials might have had access to intelligence the government was gathering, Comey refused to confirm who in the Obama administration was briefed on the FBI’s findings or even whether briefings occurred. He also told Gowdy he wouldn’t discuss any conversations he had with Obama—a refusal that got President Trump’s attention.
Before the hearing had even concluded, Trump responded to Comey’s testimony by tweeting—through the official @POTUS account rather than his more frequently-used personal one—links to Comey’s exchange with Gowdy with the heading: “FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia.” Trump also tweeted links to testimony in which Comey and Rogers said they had no evidence that Russia’s meddling directly changed votes in the election as well as Rogers’s warning that leaking classified information threatens national security. Yet while Rogers and Comey said that Russia had not hacked into voting machines, they repeatedly said they stood by their conclusions that Russia had interfered with the election in an attempt to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
Over the first three-and-a-half hours of the hearing, Democrats sought mostly to build their own case against the president and his associates, irrespective of what Comey was willing to discuss. Time and again, they used their questioning time to enter into the record public reports about Manafort, Stone, Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, all of whom are presumably part of the FBI investigation. And almost without fail, Comey refused to discuss them.
One question that Democrats curiously chose not to ask Comey, however, centered on his own decision to discuss the FBI’s inquiry into Clinton email server before the election while not disclosing that the bureau was, beginning in late July, investigating the Trump campaign’s connection to a foreign power.
Republicans continued to focus on the leaks about the investigation, growing frustrated as Comey held fast to a policy of not rebutting inaccurate press reports for fear of disclosing classified information to allies simply by virtue of denying them. While he declined to discuss any Obama administration officials specifically, he did acknowledge that people claiming access to secret material had been commenting about it to reporters “in ways that have struck me as unusually active.”
And Comey did advocate aggressive prosecution of government leakers to the point of handing down prison terms. “We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to confirm it,” he said of press reports that rely on classified material. “But I do think it should be investigated aggressively and if possible prosecuted so people take as a lesson this is not okay. This behavior can be deterred, and it’s deterred by locking some people up who have engaged in criminal activity.”