FBI Director James Comey refused to say on Tuesday whether the bureau has investigated ties between Russia and associates of President-elect Donald Trump, raising questions about whether the intelligence community has disclosed the full scope of its investigation into Moscow’s multifaceted interference in the U.S. election.
Under questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said he “would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not” and flatly refused to weigh in on the hotly debated question of Trump’s ties to Russia. “I think the American people have a right to know this,” Wyden countered.
CNN reported Tuesday that American intelligence officials have presented President Obama and Trump with “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information” on the real-estate mogul, making questions about Trump’s Russia ties even more central. Later on Tuesday, BuzzFeed published the underlying dossier in full. It contains explosive allegations about Trump, including a perverted sexual episode in the Moscow Ritz Carlton hotel.
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) chided Comey, noting the “irony” in his refusal. The FBI director revealed shortly before the election that he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email system, an inquiry that turned up no new evidence in the email case. Comey concluded in July that Clinton should not face criminal prosecution for her use of a private email address for official business but sharply criticized what he called her “extremely careless” behavior.
“I hope I’ve demonstrated by now that I’m tone-deaf when it comes to politics, and that’s the way it should be,” Comey quipped Tuesday.
The back-and-forth before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday came as the incoming administration duels with the outgoing intelligence community over Moscow’s role in the recent election. The Trump transition team is scrambling to react to a report released last week by American intelligence officials documenting the Kremlin’s election meddling, and is parrying growing calls on Capitol Hill for a thorough investigation and sanctions against Russia.
Trump himself has repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s findings, and said the country should just “move on” from an unprecedented foreign assault on the U.S. political system. Several Trump cabinet nominees will be grilled on the question this week in confirmation hearings, including prospective Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA pick Rep. Mike Pompeo (R.-Kan), and and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), tapped for attorney general.
Sessions faced several skeptical questions Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about how the administration plans to address Russian meddling. Asked about the assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, the man angling to be the top law enforcement official in the country admitted that he had “done no research” on the Russian role, but said he had no reason to doubt the the conclusions of America’s spy agencies, including the FBI, which he could oversee as soon as this month.
Sessions said Russian meddling in an American election “raises real serious matters,” and said it was important to develop “protocols” to ensure that “when people breach our systems a price is paid,” echoing bellicose language used by Senate hawks.
Sessions said he would support the FBI’s investigation into Russian hacking allegations, even if it ensnares Trump or his associates, but said a response to Russian hacking might be better handled at a “political level.”
Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, told another congressional panel Tuesday that he has “high confidence” in the intelligence community’s conclusions, potentially opening a further rift between Trump’s cabinet and the president-elect.
Allegations that the FBI may have information about contacts between the Trump team and the Kremlin first surfaced in an October letter from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) to Comey.
“In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity,” Reid wrote. “The public has a right to know this information.”
But those allegations have never been substantiated. While Comey made public significant amounts of information about his investigation into Clinton’s use of an email server — belying his claims Tuesday to steer clear of commenting on investigations — he has stayed silent on the reported Trump investigation, and has not even confirmed that it is underway.
Some members of the Trump campaign, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, have extensive ties to Russia. Manafort served as a political consultant to ousted pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and was reported to have received $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from his party. Other Trump officials, such as incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn, have been cozy with Russian state media in the past and attended gala events with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Comey offered some new details about the bureau’s investigation into the Russian campaign to meddle in the election, saying that Russian hackers did target Republican-affiliated organizations, mostly on the state-level, and also hit what he described as old Republican Party domains. But he said they did not target the Trump campaign itself.
That wasn’t as definitive as other U.S. intelligence officials, who have said that Russian hackers struck both Republican and Democratic targets, but only made public material stolen from Democrats. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper pointed to that disparity as one of the key facts underlying the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian campaign was intended to smear Clinton and benefit Trump’s electoral chances.
Still, Comey’s revelations about Russian targeting of Republicans undermines a key talking point of the incoming Trump administration. Trump erroneously says that GOP was largely spared from Russia’s hacking campaign and disclosure thanks to superior security.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images