(WASHINGTON) — FBI Director James Comey on Monday said he has “no information” supporting President Trump’s allegations that the Obama administration wiretapped the Trump presidential campaign last year, and Comey confirmed an investigation of possible links between Trump associates and Russia.
“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 the House Intelligence Committee Monday at his much-anticipated hearing — the U.S. law enforcement community’s first public response to wiretapping allegations that the White House has promoted for more than two weeks.
“And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. 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,” he added.
When asked whether President Obama could even unilaterally order a wiretap, Comey said, “No president could.”
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., also said that there is no evidence to support such an allegation but added that other Trump associates may have been followed.
“Let me be clear. I’ve been saying this for several weeks. We know there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates,” Nunes said in his opening statement.
Comey confirmed that the agency he oversees is investigating Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election, in addition to possible links between Trump associates and Russia.
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, 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,” Comey said.
Responding to his confirmation that the FBI is investigating possible links between Trump associates and the Kremlin, the White House said in a statement, “Nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm there is NO EVIDENCE of Trump-Russia collusion and there is NO EVIDENCE of a Trump-Russia scandal. Obama’s CIA director said so. Obama’s director of national intelligence said so. We take them at their word.”
Comey said the FBI has been investigating the Russia matter for “a fairly short period,” but he wouldn’t say how far along the investigation is.
In stark terms, Comey offered a possible motive for any Russian meddling in the election last year, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “hated Secretary [Hillary] Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference to the person running against the person he hated so much.”
The FBI director also warned that Russian hackers might “be back” to meddle in future U.S. elections.
“They’ll be back,” Comey said. “They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018.”
“One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sewed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process,” Comey said of the allegations. “It’s possible they’re misreading that as it worked, and so, ‘We’ll come back and hit them again in 2020.’ I don’t know, but we think we have to assume they’re coming back.”
He described their alleged 2016 intervention as “noisy.”
“They were unusually loud in their intervention,” Comey said. “It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew what they were doing, or that they wanted us to see what they were doing.”
National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, who is also testifying on Monday, said he agreed that the claim that British intelligence eavesdropped on the Trump campaign for Obama is nonsense.
“I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity,” Rogers said.
Asked whether he requested British intelligence to wiretap the Trump campaign, Rogers said, “No, sir, nor would I. That would be expressly against the construct of the [international intelligence] agreement that’s been in place.”
Asked whether such public claims of British spying affect the United States’ relationship with Britain, Rogers said, “I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours.”
A Democratic committee member, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, offered a pointed rebuke of Trump’s attacks, listing a number of people and groups he has criticized, including the intelligence community.
“There is intense public interest in the fact that our new president will attack anyone and everyone,” Himes said.
“But there is one person and one country which is immune, which is inoculated from any form of presidential attack, no matter what the behavior, no matter if there’s a violation of the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, no matter if Vladimir Putin kills political opponents, the new president defends, obfuscates, does not attack,” Himes argued, adding that some of Trump’s associates have an “odd connection to Russia.”
The hearing Monday is about much more than the unfounded accusations first lodged on Twitter. Its main purpose is to look at how Russia allegedly interfered with last year’s presidential election, and to understand FBI inquiries into whether any U.S. citizens helped the Russian government.
“I would like the American people to walk away understanding that we were attacked,” House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., told ABC News Sunday. “The perpetrator was Russia, and there are serious questions about ties” between Trump associates and Russian officials, he said.
One key part of the FBI probe has focused on Russian hackers who stole and then disseminated damaging information from inside the Democratic National Committee and U.S. political institutions, while another division of the FBI is looking at Russian efforts to collect intelligence on U.S. policies and the presidential campaigns, including contacts between Russian operatives and Trump associates.
“If it’s just 100 coincidences, let the world know that is what it is, and let’s move on,” but if there is more to the contacts and a “convergence of political and financial ties,” then those ties need to be “investigated fully,” Swalwell said. “This is not going away until we find out whether these are coincidences or a convergence.”
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