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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. 

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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. 

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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 McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition 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 ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE.

The March 20 hearing comes as the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn 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 ObamaFive things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' Texas warehouse where migrants housed in 'cages' closed for humane renovation 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.