FBI Director James Comey confirmed for the first time Monday that the agency is investigating Russian interference in last year’s presidential election and notably Moscow’s possible collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign.
He also rejected Trump’s claim that predecessor Barack Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower in New York, saying both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department had no evidence to support such allegations.
The high-stakes testimony in the House Intelligence Committee — the first public hearing into both controversies — came as Trump sought to steer the news focus by calling the Russia issue, which has been a cloud over his victory, “fake news.”
His angry tweets added to the huge political pressure from both parties on Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency.
But the FBI director opened the hearing with a bombshell.
The FBI “is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey told lawmakers in his opening statement.
“And that 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,” he said.
He dated that probe back to July 2016, when the government became aware that Democratic party computers and communications had been broken into by Russia-linked hackers.
Comey’s disclosure confirmed longstanding reports that the FBI was probing the explosive charges that Trump’s stunning election victory over Hillary Clinton last November came on the back of Russian meddling.
US intelligence chiefs said in January they were convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind that effort.
But they had not commented on whether they were examining links between members of Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
Since then, the question of whether Trump and company were or are somehow in cahoots with Russia has dominated the national conversation.
Comey held back Monday from providing any further details on Putin’s alleged involvement.
Ahead of the hearing, Trump tweeted that former intelligence chief “James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia.”
“This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!”
– Coincidence? –
Republican committee chair Devin Nunes opened the hearing by saying the panel had “seen no evidence to date that officials from any campaign conspired with Russian agents.”
But Adam Schiff, the Democratic vice chair of the committee, detailed a list of alleged links and communications between the Trump team and Russia.
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” he said.
“But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere.”
Citing the need for secrecy and to protect investigations, Comey repeatedly declined to comment on those allegations.
Moscow meanwhile has repeatedly rejected the accusation.
– ‘No information’ to support wiretap tweets –
When the hearing turned to Trump’s explosive claims that Obama had wiretapped his Manhattan base of operations, Comey was categorical in his denial.
“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey told a public hearing by the House Intelligence Committee.
“The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
It was the first time Comey or the department commented publicly on the claim that Trump continued to repeat throughout last week, without offering any evidence.
Trump on March 4 tweeted that Obama had “tapped” his phone — a charge that has consumed political debate in the US capital.
The White House went so far last week as to suggest Britain’s GCHQ signals intelligence agency cooperated with Obama in the alleged surveillance.
The charge riled the British government and GCHQ, a close ally of US spy agencies, sharply rejected it as “utterly ridiculous.”
Rogers also rejected the charge, saying it was expressly against the “Five Eyes” agreement between the spy agencies of the US and its key allies.
“I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity,” he told lawmakers.
Several congressional panels have launched investigations into Russia’s alleged election interference, including the House and Senate intelligence committees and the House and Senate judiciary committees.