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Intel hearing becomes curtain-raiser for Comey

Intel hearing becomes curtain-raiser for Comey
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Four of the central characters in the controversy surrounding President Trump and the FBI's Russia investigation will appear on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning, in the first of two blockbuster Senate hearings this week.  

National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHow President Biden can hit a home run Former Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security MORE, National Security Agency head Adm. Michael Rogers, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are scheduled to appear before the Intelligence Committee in what would otherwise be a workaday hearing on an expiring surveillance law.  

But Democrats are keen to press the four officials on the dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey, who is set to testify before the same committee the next day.  

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Rosenstein wrote a stinging memo detailing Comey’s conduct that the White House initially used as its justification for firing Comey — and McCabe was Comey's second-in-command during a time when President Trump reportedly urged him to "let go" of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.  

Media reports that President Trump asked Coats and Rogers to publicly deny the existence of evidence of any coordination between his campaign and Russia will also be a point of fierce interest.

Those reports — alongside Comey’s dismissal — have led Democrats to accuse the president of attempting to curtail the FBI’s investigation. Some have suggested that his actions amount to obstruction of justice, which they argue is an impeachable offense. 

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerMicrosoft, FireEye push for breach reporting rules after SolarWinds hack Hearings examine consequences of massive SolarWinds breach Senate Intelligence panel to hold hearing on SolarWinds breach next week MORE (D-Va.), told reporters Tuesday that he planned to press Coats and Rogers on their conversations with the president and Rosenstein on the circumstances surrounding Comey’s dismissal.

“My hope is they will respond rather than trying to hide behind executive privilege,” Warner said Tuesday. 

That line of questioning is expected to quickly overwhelm the stated purpose of the hearing, lawmakers say. 

“Absolutely,” Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHoyer: House will vote on COVID-19 relief bill Friday Haaland courts moderates during tense Senate confirmation hearing Democrats in standoff over minimum wage MORE (D-W.Va.) said when asked if the focus would be Trump and Russia, not the surveillance law.  

Republicans are determined to press ahead with their questions on the reauthorization of what’s known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which sunsets at the end of this year.   

“I have no control of where hearings go, but I know that 702 reauthorization is an important issue, so that’s where my focus is going to be and that’s what everyone is programmed to talk about,” committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Health Care: COVID-19 vaccine makers pledge massive supply increase | Biden health nominee faces first Senate test | White House defends reopening of facility for migrant kids Romney presses Becerra on vote against ban on late-term abortions Biden health nominee faces first Senate test MORE (R-N.C.) said Tuesday. 

The provision, which allows American intelligence services to target and collect the communications of non-Americans located outside of the country, was thought to be on a comparatively smooth road to reauthorization.

But the authority — which the intelligence community views as a critical anti-terror tool — is suddenly on uncertain footing.  

The surveillance and exposure of Flynn's phone call with a Russian ambassador — and claims from the president and House Republicans that Obama administration officials inappropriately sought to learn the identities of Trump campaign officials whose names were incidentally collected in the intelligence dragnet — seems to have imperiled a straight reauthorization of the law. 

Hinting at the level of concern, all eight GOP members on the Senate intel panel — along with a handful of other prominent Republicans — on Tuesday signed onto a bill permanently extending Section 702 without any changes. 

“It’s true that this program occasionally does collect information about American citizens — and that will be true of any attempt to stop any kind of homegrown terrorism,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOn The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Biden health nominee faces first Senate test Trump to attend private RNC donor retreat MORE (R-Ark.) said on the floor. 

But, he said, “We can’t afford to let this program expire. It is not too much and it is not an exaggeration to say that American lives depend on Section 702.”