FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Monday that the 2016 probe includes possible contacts between the campaign and the Kremlin.
Comey testified: “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 said in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. “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.”
“By your announcement today, there is now a cloud that undermines our system,” Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, pointedly told the FBI director. Under questioning, Comey said that the FBI began the investigation in late July. That disclosure will likely inflame Democratic criticism that Comey chose to publicly discuss the bureau’s inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails during the closing days of the 2016 election but did not reveal it was also investigating the Trump campaign and Russian meddling.
Comey’s confirmation of an ongoing investigation was just one of several statements that amounted to an extraordinary rebuke of a president who has the power to remove him from office. He directly refuted Trump’s repeated claims that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” him at Trump Tower, a charge that the White House has been unable to provide evidence for.
“I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey told Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee who had read several of Trump’s charges aloud to him. He went on to explain that he had surveyed his entire department and was told that the answer was “the same for the Department of Justice and all its components: The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
Trump (or his aides) also responded to the hearing in real-time, tweeting clips to buttress the president’s argument. One tweet—sent by the official @POTUS account rather than Trump’s more frequently-deployed personal one—linked to an exchange between Comey and GOP Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. 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 NSA Director Michael 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.
Aside from his comments on the president’s tweets, Comey refused to discuss specifics of the FBI’s investigation or to fact-check anonymously-sourced reports of its findings in the press—a limitation that proved frustrating to lawmakers in both parties. As the hearing proceeded, a pattern developed in the questioning that reflected the respective political priorities for Republican and Democratic members of the intelligence committee.
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.
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.”
Though Comey was not pressed on his decision to keep the Trump investigation quiet, he expressed regret about the FBI’s initial response to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email server. The DNC took months to adequately assess the security threat, a lapse in part blamed on a lack of urgency on the part of the FBI in warning them their system had been compromised. By then, it was too late. “I might have walked over there myself knowing what I know now,” Comey said.
Nunes and other GOP committee members implored him to expedite the investigation, if only to clear the names of Trump administration officials and campaign advisers who have been linked to the probe in press reports. “There is a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do leading this country,” Nunes said. “So the faster you can get to the bottom of this, the better it will be for all Americans.”
On Monday, Democrats had no difficulty accepting Comey’s testimony about Russia, but their assessment of its implications were far more grave. “We’ve heard nothing but terribly disturbing evidence of what’s happened to our country at the hands of arguably our greatest adversary,” said Representative Denny Heck, a Democrat from Washington state. He then asked Comey and Rogers to put into their own words why the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling is important, and why the public should care that the men and women who now lead the country just might have been involved.
“It threatens what is America,” Comey replied, “and if any Americans are a part of that effort, it’s a very serious matter.”