FBI Director James Comey acknowledged this morning the existence of a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, and said that probe extends to the nature of any links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey said the investigation is also exploring whether there was any coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin, and “whether any crimes were committed.”
The acknowledgment was an unusual move, given that the FBI’s practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations. “But in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”
Comey said he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the wide-ranging probe’s existence.
He spoke at the first intelligence committee public hearing on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, along with National Security Agency head Michael S. Rogers.
The hearing comes amid the controversy fired up by President Donald Trump two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that then-President Barack Obama ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.
Comey privately told lawmakers last week that there was no basis to the charge.
“The fact that Russia hacked U.S. election-related databases comes as no shock to this committee. We have been closely monitoring Russia’s aggressions for years,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in an opening statement. “However, while the indications of Russian measures targeting the U.S. presidential election are deeply troubling, one benefit is already clear – it has focused wide attention on the pressing threats posed by the Russian autocrat. In recent years, Committee members have issued repeated and forceful pleas for stronger action against Russian belligerence. But the Obama administration was committed to the notion, against all evidence, that we could ‘reset’ relations with Putin, and it routinely ignored our warnings.”
Nunes said he hoped the hearing would focus on several key questions, including what actions Russia undertook against the United States during the 2016 election and did anyone from a political campaign conspire in these activities? He also wants to know if the communications of any campaign officials or associates were subject to any improper surveillance.
“Let me be clear,” he said. “We know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
Finally, Nunes said he is focused on leaks of classified information to the media. “We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so these individuals can be brought to justice,” he said.
In his opening statement, Schiff said: “We will never know whether the Russian intervention was determinative in such a close election. Indeed it is unknowable in a campaign in which so many small changes could have dictated a different result. More importantly, and for the purposes of our investigation, it simply does not matter. What does matter is this: the Russians successfully meddled in our democracy, and our intelligence agencies have concluded that they will do so again.”
He added: “Most important, we do not yet know whether the Russians had the help of U.S. citizens, including people associated with the Trump campaign. Many of Trump’s campaign personnel, including the president himself, have ties to Russia and Russian interests. This is, of course, no crime. On the other hand, if the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”
Just hours before the start of the hearing, Trump posted a series of tweets claiming Democrats “made up” the allegations of Russian contacts in an attempt to discredit the GOP during the presidential campaign. Trump also urged federal investigators to shift their focus to probe disclosures of classified material.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” Trump wrote early Monday. “Must find leaker now!”
On Sunday, Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, also countered the president’s assertion. “Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, but there never was,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The FBI has been conducting a wide-ranging counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s covert role in the election. As part of that, the bureau has been exploring potential links between Trump associates and Moscow, but Comey has never publicly acknowledged that. His reticence has annoyed lawmakers from both parties, and leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have threatened to hold up the confirmation of the deputy attorney general until he briefs the committee on the matter.
The FBI probe combines an investigation into hacking operations by Russian spy agencies with efforts to understand how the Kremlin sought to manipulate public opinion and influence the election’s outcome.
In January, the intelligence community released a report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to not only undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also harm the campaign of Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances of winning.
Hackers working for Russian spy agencies penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016 as well as the email accounts of Democratic officials, intelligence official said in the report. The material was relayed to WikiLeaks, the officials said, and the anti-secrecy group began a series of damaging email releases just before the Democratic National Convention that continued through the fall.
“For a lot of Americans this is the first time to really tune in to exactly what the Russians did and what the investigation involves, and I’d like to walk through with both directors what do we know about the Russian operation? What was its breadth?” said Schiff, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Beyond the hacking and dumping of documents, he said, a key issue is “were there U.S. persons that were helping the Russians in any way? Was there any form of collusion?”
On Friday, the Justice Department delivered documents to the committee in response to a request for copies of intelligence and criminal wiretap orders and applications. Nunes said the material provided “no evidence of collusion” to sway the election toward Trump and repeated previous statements that there is no credible proof of any active coordination.
But Schiff said there was “circumstantial evidence of collusion” at the outset of the congressional investigations into purported Russian election meddling, as well as “direct evidence” that Trump campaign figures sought to deceive the public about their interactions with Russian figures.
The concerns about Moscow’s meddling are also being felt in Europe, where France and Germany hold elections this year. “Our allies,” Schiff said, “are facing the same Russian onslaught.”
Comey will be limited in what he can publicly say about the issue of collusion, Schiff acknowledged. “But there is a lot he can tell us about the Russian motivations for their intervention in our elections, how the Russians operate in Europe, what techniques they use and what we should be on the lookout for in our investigation,” he said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ellen Nakashima, Karoun Demirjian