Shadow Government

At Comey Hearing, Mental Gymnastics on Display

If mental gymnastics were an Olympic event, yesterday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing represented a qualifying round full of strong showings from a large number of competitors both inside and outside the room.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - MARCH 20:  (L-R) James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, testify during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 United States election, on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. While both the Senate and House Intelligence committees have received private intelligence briefings in recent months, Monday's hearing is the first public hearing on alleged Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - MARCH 20: (L-R) James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, testify during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 United States election, on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. While both the Senate and House Intelligence committees have received private intelligence briefings in recent months, Monday's hearing is the first public hearing on alleged Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

If mental gymnastics were an Olympic event, yesterday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing represented a qualifying round full of strong showings from a large number of competitors both inside and outside the room.

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers came, not to compete, but to shed some light into the government’s investigations into Russian attempts to influence the American elections. In doing so, they confirmed some long-suspected, but truly consequential things.

First, Comey confirmed that the Trump campaign is currently under counterintelligence investigation by the FBI, and that this investigation began long before the election. He testified that the government had high confidence by December that the Russians intended to “hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him.” While he repeatedly refused to address specifics of the investigation or make references to any particular individual, he did say at the end that it is “very serious” if any Americans colluded with Russia to interfere with the election.  This is exactly why an investigation is needed, to get to the bottom of all the allegations swirling in the press.

Second, Comey and Rogers both contradicted President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that Trump Tower was wiretapped by the Obama administration. Comey said he had been authorized on behalf of himself and the Department of Justice to reveal that no such wiretap existed. Rogers went further, flatly denying Trump’s claims that he was wiretapped by the NSA’s British counterpart, the GCHQ, saying no such request had been made nor would be made.

On most other things, Comey refused to answer questions on the investigation, which is likely a bad sign for the Trump administration. But all around town, the competition for best mental gymnast began.

Chairman Devin Nunes

Chairman Nunes (R-Calif.) began strong by insisting that the Obama administration had badly underestimated the Russians in trying to reset the relationship in 2009. As Nunes accused Democrats of allowing the reversion to bad behavior by Russia in 2008, he also deftly vaulted over the obstacle of President Trump and the Trump campaign’s abandonment of traditional Republican animosity towards Moscow. As Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) pointed out later in the hearing, Trump criticizes everyone from the cast of Hamilton to John McCain, but never ever says a bad word about Putin and Russia.

Later, Nunes criticized Rogers for speaking to the transition team about a potential job in the Trump administration, while neglecting to mention that he himself was the head of the president’s national security transition. The stakes were high for Nunes to demonstrate that he could lead an unbiased investigation into the allegations and remain an objective overseer for the intelligence community. Largely, by being a GOP team player, he did little to reassure the spies that he oversees that he would treat their concerns fairly.

After a brief break, Nunes took on one more contortion, when he claimed that the GOP platform wound up stronger after the interference of the Trump campaign. And while he gets technical points for correcting the facts of the matter, it’s still the case that the Trump campaign staff successfully watered down an amendment that would have adopted a more muscular response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of the Crimea.

President Donald Trump

During the hearing, President Trump drew an uneven parallel when he tweeted that Comey’s testimony showed that Russians hadn’t interfered with the election. But Comey had only testified that there was no indication that the Russians had interfered with the voting machines. He also testified that the Russians had tried to influence public opinion with the hack of the DNC emails and their subsequent disclosure on WikiLeaks, and also tried to access the voter registration files. When confronted with the president’s tweet later in the hearing, Comey again contradicted Trump verifying that he had not testified that the Russians hadn’t interfered.

Sean Spicer

During the hearing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a briefing to respond to Comey’s refutation of Trump’s tweet on the election, which came as a response to Comey’s testimony refuting Trump’s earlier tweet about wiretapping. Spicer maintained that the testimony of Comey and Rogers — plus statements of the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the GCHQ all denying Obama administration wiretapping of Trump Tower — were insufficient to prove definitively that Trump’s allegations had no basis in fact.

He then spun on his axle and claimed that there was no need for further investigation into the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. In an amazing leap of logic, he characterized Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort as having “a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” — which must have come as a surprise to presidential campaign managers everywhere. He also downplayed Mike Flynn’s role in the campaign by claiming he was just a volunteer, ignoring the access to highly sensitive information he began to receive through the campaign transition and as the national security advisor.

Trey Gowdy

Trey Gowdy, former chair of the Benghazi committee, grilled Comey repeatedly on leaks of conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. His concern was so great that he suggested that the renewal of surveillance authorities under Section 702 might be at risk if the leaks were not found and plugged. It is one thing to be concerned about leaks if he had displayed the same concern in his own months and months of a leak-ridden investigation into sensitive intelligence operations in Benghazi. While many members of Congress and civil libertarians are concerned that the FBI’s access to 702 authorities are too lax, it is unlikely that Flynn’s conversations were caught under that program, rather than under a FISA warrant on Kislyak himself.

FBI Director James Comey

Comey repeatedly refused to answer the members’ questions about the substance of the investigation, saying he did not want to compromise the outcome or reveal too much. But yet, at the same time he was being so circumspect during his investigations of the Trump campaign — which he said began in July 2016 — he sent a letter to the same members of Congress suggesting that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails based on a laptop found as part of the investigation into Anthony Weiner. This revelation dramatically changed public opinion in the campaign, but ultimately and quickly yielded nothing of substance in the investigation. Surprisingly, none of the members of the committee asked him about this difference.

After today’s display of mental gymnastics, the Russian judge would give them all a 10.

Photo credit: ZACH GIBSON/Getty Images

Mieke Eoyang is the vice president for the national security program at Third Way, and a former subcommittee staff director at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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