Comey Confirms Trump-Russia Probe, Knocks Down Wiretap

March 20, 2017 | Mackenzie Weinger
Photo: iStock.com/raghu_ramaswamy

FBI Director James Comey confirmed on Monday, for the first time, that the agency is conducting an investigation into whether there was any coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.

Comey told the House Intelligence Committee the investigation into possible Trump-Russia connections began in late July 2016. He said the Department of Justice had authorized him to confirm that the FBI, as part of its counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.

That inquiry “includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts,” Comey told the members. “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

It is an open, ongoing investigation, the FBI director said.

Admiral Mike Rogers, who heads both the National Security Agency (NSA) and Cyber Command, said there is “no change” in the Intelligence Community’s confidence level of its Russian election interference assessment, which found Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyber and influence campaign aimed at meddling in the United States election, denigrating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton with the goal of boosting Trump’s chances.

The lines of questioning during Monday’s public hearing — the first held by House Intelligence on the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 election — ricocheted back and forth on partisan lines. Democratic members zeroed largely onto questions of possible ties between Trump associates and Moscow, as well as the President’s wiretapping allegations against the previous administration.

Several asked questions about specific Trump associates, such as his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former advisors Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Michael Caputo, J.D. Gordon and Roger Stone, and members of his Cabinet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and their respective ties to Russia. Comey repeatedly said he would not comment on any particular person at the hearing.

Republican members, meanwhile, sought to focus on the subject of leaks of classified information, largely disregarding Comey’s announcement of the investigation into the Trump campaign, to hone in on Intelligence Community leaks to the media.

Rep. Peter King (R-New York) asked the witnesses about comments made by former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, throwing cold water on the allegations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. At The Cipher Brief’s Georgetown Salon event last week, Morell, who supported Hillary Clinton, said, “there’s smoke, but there is no fire. There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there is no spark.” Both Comey and Rogers said they would not comment on Morell’s statement.

Comey said the IC’s January assessment on Russian election interference is separate from the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of possible coordination between Trump associates and Moscow.

The Cipher Brief Network expert John Sipher, who retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, said before Monday’s hearing that he worries Congress “does not have the expertise to handle the investigation effectively and that, despite the best efforts of a few serious representatives, it will quickly become a partisan affair. I fear that the subtle and complicated issues will get lost.”

“I am very concerned that that the investigation will devolve into partisan warfare and leave us in an even more difficult position than we are now,” he told The Cipher Brief last week. “The investigation of CIA's enhanced interrogation program is a good example. The Democrats came to one conclusion, and the Republicans to another. Despite all of the effort and work, the country is not any wiser for the effort.”

Both Comey and Rogers also said they had seen no evidence to support Trump’s allegations that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ordered Trump Towers wiretapped during the presidential campaign.

Comey said he has “no information” that supports the allegations Trump made in a series of tweets, adding that “we have looked carefully inside the FBI.” The DoJ and all its components also have no information that supports those tweets, Comey told the representatives.

Rogers also knocked down the White House’s allegation that GCHQ, a British intelligence organization, had carried out surveillance of the Trump campaign on behalf of the Obama administration, saying he had seen nothing to back that up, and that it would be illegal for NSA to ask its British counterpart to carry out such activity.

“That would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that's been in place for decades,” Rogers said, a reference to a security agreement among the U.S., UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Before Monday’s hearing, Steven Hall, a former senior CIA officer who retired in 2015 and spent much of his career overseeing intelligence operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact, told The Cipher Brief that “these allegations from Trump serve as “sort of a diversionary tactic to make people forget what’s really going on” with the election interference investigation.”

“If I were Trump sitting in the White House right now, that’s what I’d be doing. I would say, ‘How much chaff can we get up in the air that will force the committee to do almost anything but look at what really matters most or really worries him the most,’ which is calling into question the results of the election — in other words, possible connectivity to Russia,” he added.

On the subject of Russian interference, Comey noted that “they were unusually loud in their intervention” and it was “almost as if they didn’t care” if the U.S. knew.

The FBI director also refuted a tweet sent out by Trump’s official presidential account while the hearing was underway, which said that “the NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.” Comey told members that “it certainly wasn’t our intention to say that today because we don’t have any information on that subject.” The question from lawmakers that the two officials were responding to was whether there had been any evidence of vote tallying manipulation in specific states by the Kremlin. There was no IC investigation into whether the Russian interference impacted voter opinion.  

Hall told The Cipher Brief last week that an independent, 9/11 style commission, rather than inquiries by the Intelligence oversight committees, may be the best approach for the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. election.

“I have to say, sadly, I don’t think the congressional oversight committees are the most effective and even the right way to go on this,” Hall said, noting he worked for a year in the CIA’s congressional affairs office, and he has great respect for the committees’ professional staffers. “But the committees are, by definition, inherently political, and I saw this again and again on the committees where you would have splits along party lines. This issue is simply too important.”

A number of other congressional committees are investigating the Kremlin’s actions. The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a public hearing on March 30, while on Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing on Russian tactics to undermine democracies around the world.

Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee’s second public hearing will be held on March 28. Expected witnesses invited by the committee are former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and two senior officials from CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that identified and attributed the hacks of the Democratic National Committee to Russian operatives. 

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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