FBI investigating Trump-Russia ties
The FBI is investigating whether President Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during last year’s presidential election, Director James Comey said Monday during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
Delivering a one-two punch to the Trump administration, Comey also said the FBI had seen no evidence to support the president’s claim that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower under surveillance last year.
Comey’s revelation about the election investigation — made in dramatic style during his opening statement and carried live by cable news networks — ended months of speculation about the bureau’s work, much of it fueled by leaks to the press.
The statement virtually guarantees that the specter of Russian influence will hang over the White House for months to come, a perilous prospect for a president already facing favorability numbers under 40 percent.
The investigation has been underway since late July, Comey said, and will include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. The chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee have been briefed in detail, a step he described as “unprecedented.”
Beyond those broad disclosures, the director said little more. He refused to confirm or deny whether the president — or any other administration official — is under investigation.
And he repeatedly cautioned lawmakers not to “over-interpret” his refusal to comment, citing the ongoing and sensitive nature of the FBI’s work.
The stunning disclosure of the investigation — without the underlying details — frustrated Republicans and quickly drew comparisons with Comey’s ambiguous October announcement that the bureau had found additional evidence “potentially relevant” to its then-closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.
The undefined probe will be a “cloud” over the Trump administration, Republicans warned.
“This is why this investigation has to go quickly,” a visibly annoyed Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, told reporters after the hearing.
“I think this is very problematic moving forward — that you can’t even say whether or not people in the White House or the administration are under some kind of investigation. I think that’s very problematic.”
Throughout the nearly six-hour hearing, Democrats pressed Comey on past Trump associates who have been linked to Russian interests.
Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump, has admitted to having a “back channel” connection to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The site published the emails stolen by hackers from the Democratic National Committee and former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, but has denied they came from Russia.
Stone has made public the conversations he had with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker persona believed to be run by Russian intelligence that was also used to disseminate some of the stolen emails.
Democrats also asked about former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page’s reported dealings with the Russian energy firm Gazprom and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s ties to a pro-Russia official in Ukraine.
To all, Comey refused to comment. The former prosecutor emphasized that the bureau is investigating “coordination” between the campaign and Russia, not “collusion.”
In response to questioning from Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Comey raised the possibility that a member of the Trump campaign could have coordinated with a foreign government unknowingly.
“You can do things to help a foreign nation state without realizing that you’re dealing with [one],” Comey said.
A U.S. individual could think they are “helping a buddy who’s a researcher at a university in China,” he said, when that friend is actually passing the information on to the Chinese government.
The White House immediately sought to distance Trump from Manafort, Page and Stone. Press secretary Sean Spicer described Manafort as playing “only a very limited role on the campaign.”
Spicer dismissed Page as a “hanger-on” and said Trump has not spoken to Stone “anytime recently.”
The spokesman added that he doesn’t know of any White House officials currently under investigation.
Nunes — who repeatedly insisted that there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and anyone in the White House — downplayed the role of the three controversial associates.
“There’s all these extra characters out there that I don’t think ever really had anything to do with the campaign,” he told reporters. “The Democrats brought up this cast of names. I don’t know who they are.”
Pressed by reporters, Nunes claimed to have heard of Manafort, but not Page or Stone.
The existence of an active FBI investigation into the campaign of the sitting U.S. president threatens to deepen the rift between the bureau and the White House.
Trump last month took aim at the FBI after Comey reportedly refused to dispute a New York Times story that said agents had uncovered contact between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.
Comey reportedly called White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and said that while the story was wrong, the FBI would not put out a statement.
Trump blasted the FBI on Twitter for being “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time.”
A few weeks later, Trump accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Comey was reportedly “incredulous” and asked the Justice Department to swat down the claim, but was rebuffed.
Comey took the opportunity Monday to refute the wiretapping claim in person and at one point even pushed back on a tweet from the president that was sent during his testimony.
Trump tweeted a video from the hearing, sent from his @POTUS account, saying, “The [National Security Agency] and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.”
Under questioning about the tweet from Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Comey allowed, “It certainly wasn’t our intention to say that today.”
Despite contradicting the president’s claim that he was wiretapped, Comey provided little additional insight into the source of Trump’s allegation.
The president has stood by his claim, though the White House had appeared to walk back the accusation last week, saying it referred more broadly to surveillance activities by the Obama administration.
Spicer insisted that authorities are just beginning to explore the accusation, while simultaneously arguing that there is a conclusive lack of proof of coordination between Trump’s associates and Russia.
“Investigating it and having proof are two different things,” Spicer said. “There’s a point at which you continue to search for something that everybody who’s been briefed hasn’t seen or found.”
He pointed to comments made by former acting CIA chief Michael Morrell and Obama’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, who have both said they have seen no evidence that Trump allies helped Moscow intervene in the election.
“We take them at their word,” he said.
Jordan Fabian contributed.
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