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FBI chief expected to testify in House Russia hearing: official

FBI chief expected to testify in House Russia hearing: official
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during its March 20 hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. elections, a senior bureau official tells The Hill. 

“That’s the plan. We’re still working out the details and the ground rules with the committee, but we expect that we will be able to accommodate that date,” said Greg Brower, assistant director for the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs.

The hearing — announced this week — is the first public hearing in the committee’s contentious probe. 

It is unclear whether Comey will appear during the public component or in a closed-door session. A committee aide said that while there will probably be a component to the hearing off-limits to the public, it likely won’t be on March 20. 

Brower also cautioned that the director would be unable to provide many new details about the bureau’s assessment of Russian interference on the presidential election — documented in a multi-agency intelligence community report made public in December — but he provided a few clues as to the focus of the hotly-anticipated hearing. 

“The March 20 hearing, as I understand it, is aimed at drilling down on the [intelligence community] report — the public version that was distributed,” he said. “It’s likely that not much more than is in that report can be discussed in an open forum, but my sense from staff is that’s the idea — they want to at least kick off their public hearings with a hearing about the report.”

The intelligence community in December released a declassified version of its assessment that Russia attempted to intervene in the U.S. election specifically for the purpose of helping President Trump win the White House. 

The report generated fierce controversy because it provided few details not already part of the public record, leaving many skeptics dissatisfied. Democrats who have seen the classified version, meanwhile, have long hinted that if the public could see what they saw, there would be little doubt as to the level of Russia’s involvement. 

Although Comey has rebuffed invitations to brief the committee behind closed doors in the past, he has been back and forth between Capitol Hill and the bureau headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue several times since the release of the report. 

He briefed the so-called “gang of eight” this week — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Trump has not invited Democrats, media to state dinner: report MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThrowing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism House Republicans push Mulvaney, Trump to rescind Gateway funds Congress should build on the momentum from spending bill MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanScalise released from hospital after planned surgery GOP sold Americans a bill of goods with tax reform law Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the top Republican and Democrat on both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

Comey had previously briefed the full Senate Intelligence Committee last month.

The former prosecutor has been under fierce pressure from Democrats to reveal whether the bureau is investigating alleged links between  Trump’s campaign and Russian officials — a silence notable given the director’s public accounting last year of the probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge HW Bush wears 'book socks' to Barbara Bush's funeral to honor her passion for literacy Obamas, Clintons to attend funeral of Barbara Bush Hillary Clinton to fundraise in DC for public charter high school MORE.

The March 20 hearing comes as the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Defense: Trump steps up fight with California over guard deployment | Heitkamp is first Dem to back Pompeo for State | Dems question legality of Syria strikes Top Dems demand answers from Trump over legality of Syria strikes New York seeks authority to prosecute despite presidential pardons MORE (Calif.), has accused Comey of withholding information from lawmakers.

“I would say at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows,” Schiff told reporters after a briefing with Comey last week.

“I appreciate we had a long briefing and testimony from the director today, but in order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we’re gonna need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they are conducting,” Schiff said.

“At this point, the director was not willing to do that.”

Also invited to testify on March 20 are National Security Agency head Adm. Mike Rogers, former CIA director John Brennan, former national intelligence director James Clapper, former acting attorney general Sally Yates and two senior officials from the cybersecurity firm that first put the finger on the Russians for the breach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

But House Intelligence Committee head Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) cautioned Monday that the witness list was preliminary and subject to change. 

Committee leadership last week settled on a scope for the investigation into Russian interference, which will cover both alleged connections between Trump campaign officials and Moscow as well as reported leaks from members of the intelligence community.

It came after weeks of fierce wrangling over what should fall under the purview of the investigation — and how strong the evidence is indicating contact between the campaign and Russian officials.

Schiff has also indicated that he intends to press Comey on whether the bureau did, in fact, tap Trump Tower.

The president over the weekend sent out a shocking string of tweets accusing his predecessor, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUS set to admit fewest refugees in decades: report NRATV host says Obama owes Parkland students an apology over shooting Paltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns MORE, of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. The accusation has not been substantiated and Comey reportedly petitioned the Justice Department to issue a denial.

“If the public reports are accurate and Mr. Comey wanted the Justice Department to speak out on this, he will have his own opportunity on March 20,” Schiff said earlier this week.