Five takeaways from a busy day of Russia hearings

Three senior intelligence officials testified Tuesday before different panels concerned with swirling controversies surrounding Russia’s actions in the 2016 presidential election.

Former CIA Director John Brennan’s remarks about contacts between people in President Trump’s circle and Russia made the biggest headlines, but there were enough developments throughout the day that it was hard to keep up.

Here are five takeaways from a busy day on Capitol Hill.


Brennan was concerned about contacts between Russia, Trump campaign associates

Brennan told lawmakers that he had seen intelligence showing that people involved in Trump’s campaign had interactions with Russian officials that “concerned” him.

He argued that it was beyond the operational purview of the CIA to determine whether there was any evidence of collusion — that’s the FBI’s job, he said — but “there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau.”

Brennan declined to reveal individual names, and he emphasized that U.S. persons might not realize they are communicating with a Russian intelligence operative. Targets of Russian influence operations can be recruited to do the Kremlin’s bidding without realizing what’s going on, he explained.

Brennan also revealed that he had warned his Russian counterpart, Federal Security Service, or FSB, head Alexander Bortnikov, in August that any interference in the U.S. election would “destroy any near-term prospect” of improved relations between Moscow and Washington.

Intelligence head isn’t talking about Trump requests

Testimony by Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Former Trump officials including Fiona Hill helped prepare Biden for Putin summit: report Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? MORE was shadowed by a news story published in The Washington Post the previous day that said he and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers refused requests from the president that they deny the existence of any evidence of collusion in the election.


Coats wouldn’t take the bait.

“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president,” he told Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (R-Ariz.) at the opening of his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In a separate exchange, Coats said that any “political shaping” of intelligence on his behalf would be inappropriate.

The Post report fueled speculation about efforts by the president to knock down the FBI’s investigation into Russian election interference.

Trump admitted himself during an interview with NBC that the Russia probe influenced his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

Rogers, somewhat surprisingly, never faced a single question about the report.

Republicans make debate about lack of evidence for collusion

Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyTrey Gowdy sets goal of avoiding ideological echo chamber with Fox News show Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows Pompeo rebukes Biden's new foreign policy MORE (R-S.C.) pressed Brennan repeatedly on what evidence he had of any collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign officials.

Republican after Republican ceded their time back to the former prosecutor during the meeting, hinting at a new GOP focus.

“Did evidence exist of collusion, coordination, conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors at the time you learned of 2016 efforts?” Gowdy asked.

The line of questioning was echoed by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who along with Gowdy is assisting Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) in steering the probe.

“Our charge on this committee isn’t so much necessarily to try to seek out and root out criminal behavior,” Rooney asserted.

Brennan repeatedly pushed back against the notion that he would be in a position to provide evidence.

“I really don’t do evidence. I do intelligence,” he said. “As an intelligence professional, what we try to do is to make sure that we provide all relevant information to the bureau if there is an investigation underway that they’re looking into criminal activity.”


He told lawmakers that he was unaware of what Comey had briefed lawmakers on behind closed doors, suggesting that there are limits to his knowledge of any criminal activity by U.S. persons.

Senate Intelligence Committee goes after Flynn

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday announced that they were issuing two additional subpoenas for businesses associated with former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The subpoenas — focused on a pair of businesses associated with Flynn located in Alexandria, Va. — were among the panel’s first slate of responses to Flynn’s refusal to respond to a subpoena for documents related to the committee’s probe into Russian election meddling.

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Optimism grows that infrastructure deal will get to Biden's desk MORE (D-Va.), the panel’s chairman and vice chairman, have also sent a letter to Flynn’s attorney challenging whether he can legally claim Fifth Amendment protections to a request for documents.

Flynn on Monday refused the committee’s initial subpoena for documents, claiming the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and citing the “escalating public frenzy” surrounding the request.

For now, it’s unclear how much appetite the Senate panel has to hold Flynn in contempt of Congress — the first step to enforcing the subpoena.


“We’ve taken the actions we feel are appropriate right now. If there is not a response, we will seek additional counsel advice on how to proceed forward. At the end of that option is a contempt charge,” Burr told reporters Tuesday. “I’ve said everything is on the table.”

But, he added, “That’s not our preference.”

Scrutiny on leaks grows

Democrats have criticized the GOP focus on leaks as a partisan attempt to shield the president — but the issue received a serious response from both current and former administration officials on Tuesday.

Brennan offered a stinging criticism of the leaks to the media that exposed Trump’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“These leaks continue to be very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling and they need to be tracked down,” Brennan said.

Coats was also fiercely critical of leaks to the press in response to a line of questioning from McCain about the report that Trump asked him to push back against the FBI probe.

“Leaks have played a very significant, negative role relative to our national security. The release of information not only undermines confidence in our allies about our ability to maintain secure information that we share with them, it jeopardizes sources and methods that are invaluable to our ability to find out what’s going on and what those threats are,” Coats said.

“Lives are at stake in many instances, and leaks jeopardize those lives,” he said.