Two senior intelligence officials told lawmakers Wednesday that they had never felt coerced by the White House.
The testimony from NSA chief Adm. Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' MORE was all the more notable coming just hours before former FBI Director James Comey released a seven-page statement filled with potentially damaging details about Trump’s pressure on his own Russian investigation.
“In the three-plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believed to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate,” Rogers said in one memorable moment from the Senate Intellligence Committee hearing.
“And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.”
Coats similarly vowed that he had “never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way.”
But Coats and Rogers, together with acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, repeatedly and firmly refused to comment on the substance of their conversations with the president.
The repeated refusals by the four officials to answer questions, from the Senate Intelligence Committee, sparked visible outrage from Democrats — and a pointed and unsparing rebuke from the GOP chairman, Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (R-N.C.).
“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” Burr chided.
“It may be in a different format but the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it,” he said.
Wednesday’s hearing, ostensibly on an expiring foreign surveillance law, quickly turned into a contentious back-and-forth hinged on a Tuesday report from The Washington Post that Trump had asked Coats to intervene with Comey to curtail the FBI investigation.
Comey is set to appear before the same panel on Thursday.
The four Trump administration officials on Wednesday offered a myriad of explanations for their silence — none of which satisfied lawmakers.
All four said they were not aware of an invocation of executive privilege by the White House covering their interactions with the president. McCabe and Rosenstein said they had not spoken to the White House, while Rogers said he and Coats did not receive a “definitive answer” to the question.
There was no invocation “that I’m aware of,” Rogers said.
Coats allowed that he did not have a “legal basis” to keep silent, promising to provide as much information behind closed doors as he was able but insisting that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss his conversations with the president in an open forum.
In perhaps the most tense exchange of the day, Rogers gave a visibly frustrated Sen. Angus KingAngus KingThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Angus King: Losing climate provisions in reconciliation bill weakens Biden's hands in Glasgow Sunday shows - Democrats' spending plan in the spotlight MORE (I-Maine) the same answer. King, typically seen as one of the Senate’s more genial members, snapped at Rogers: “What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral.”
McCabe and Rosenstein both cited the ongoing federal investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, arguing that it is the “default” position of the Justice Department not to discuss anything that might be under active investigation.
“I don’t understand why the special counsel’s lane takes precedence over the lane of the United States Congress,” King said.
Rogers and Coats argued that they viewed the content of their conversations with the president as classified — a claim that was met with some skepticism.
“It shows what kind of an Orwellian existence that we live in [that] here in a public hearing before the American people, we can't talk about what was described in detail in this morning's Washington Post,” noted Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' Grant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? MORE (R-Ariz.).
“Just because it's published in The Washington Post doesn't mean it's now unclassified,” Coats responded.
The hearing was quickly overshadowed by Comey’s opening statement in advance of Thursday’s hearing.
That statement painted a very different picture that Coats and Rogers’ insistence that they had never felt pressured by the president.
In a highly-detailed account of nine encounters with the president, Comey reports that Trump on multiple occasions sought solo audiences with him to push him to “lift the cloud” of the bureau’s investigation.
“My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” Comey wrote.
“That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.”