By Chris Strohm, Billy House and Toluse Olorunnipa
FBI Director James Comey confirmed the bureau is probing potential ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign and said there’s no evidence to support the president’s allegation that his predecessor “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year.
“I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on Monday.
Comey said the Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a broad inquiry into Moscow’s efforts to “interfere” in the presidential election, an effort he said began in late July of last year.
“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,” Comey said. “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 cautioned he wouldn’t be able to discuss many details of what remains a classified probe and said that his refusal to answer a question shouldn’t be taken as a tacit confirmation. “Please don’t draw any conclusions from the fact that I may not be able to comment on certain topics,” he said, adding it “really isn’t fair to draw conclusions.”
Nonetheless, Trump tweeted during the hearing: “FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia.”
It was a reference to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, who was fired for misleading Vice President Pence about the content of phone calls with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration. Media reports at the time, based on anonymous sources, said the subject of U.S. sanctions against Russia was discussed.
A name familiar in Western New York came up during the inquiry when questioning moved to Rep. Jackie Speier. After asking about American CEOs who develop relationships with Russia, she brought up conservative radio talk show host Michael R. Caputo. Here's the back-and-forth, as transcribed from a livestream from PBS News Hour of the hearing:
Speier: Let's move on to someone else in that web. His name is Michael Caputo. He's a PR professional who served (as a) radio talk show host. In 1994 he moved to Russia, and there he was working for the Agency for International Development. He was fired from that job because he refused to follow a State Department position. He then opened a PR firm in Moscow and married a Russian woman. He subsequently divorced her, and in 1999 his business failed. Roger Stone, a mentor to him, urged him to move to Florida and open his PR firm in Miami, which is exactly what Mr. Caputo did. And then in 2000, he worked with Gazprom-Media to improve Putin's image in the United StateS. Now, do we know who Gazprom-Media is? do we know anything about Gazprom, director?
Comey: I don't.
Speier: It's an oil company. In 2007, he began consulting the Ukrainian Parliamentary campaign. There he met his second wife. So I guess my question is, what possible reason is there for the Trump campaign to hire Putin's image consultant? Any thoughts on that, Director Comey?
Comey: No thoughts.
Speir: Admiral Rogers?
Adm. Mike Rogers: Likewise, ma'am.
Speier: All right. Do either of you know what Caputo is doing for (the) Trump effort today?
Rogers: I have no idea.
Comey (difficult to make out): I'm not going to talk about a U.S. persons.
News reporter Sandra Tan covered Caputo's background in an extensive profile in 2016 that was sparked by a supposedly classified report claiming that Caputo was a longtime covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. The document claimed that not only was Caputo a former CIA agent, but that he had gone rogue and was now working with a man connected to al Qaeda.
Tan determined that the allegations were false, but it took independent research, outreach to the United Nations, experts on Afghanistan politics, and other former CIA agents. Read more here.
A White House official, who asked not to be identified, said Monday’s hearing changed nothing and that intelligence officials in former President Barack Obama’s administration had said they had no evidence of collusion between Trump’s camp and Russia.
While some Republicans on the committee suggested Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign may have collaborated with Russians, Comey bluntly rejected that notion. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to undermine the former secretary of state’s candidacy while aiding Trump’s, as U.S. intelligence agencies found in January.
“They wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her and help him,” Comey said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.”
Comey addressed the panel alongside the head of the National Security Agency as leaders of the Intelligence Committee debunked Trump’s claim that his predecessor listened in on his communications.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said “the fact that Russia hacked U.S. election-related databases comes as no shock to this committee.” He also went on to reject the president’s claims that the Obama administration “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year, saying, “Let me be clear: we know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower.”
His Democratic colleague, Adam Schiff of California, said there was “no crime” in Trump or his aides having legitimate connections with Russian interests. But he added, “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.”
Nunes said Monday’s public hearing, with Comey and NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers, was intended to focus on Russia’s actions, whether campaign officials or other U.S. citizens were improperly monitored and who was responsible for leaks of sensitive information.
Looming over the hearing was the case of Flynn. Republicans focused their questioning on how Flynn’s identity and his contacts with Kislyak were unmasked and leaked, saying it was a crime that has damaged U.S. spy programs.
“The American people have an agreement with their government,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican. “We are going to give you the tools and government in return promises to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens. When that deal is broken it jeopardizes American trust in the surveillance program.”
Comey acknowledged it would be a crime if a U.S. person’s identity was willfully unmasked and leaked. However, Comey declined to say whether the leaking of Flynn’s name and phone call with the Russian ambassador was a crime or if it is under investigation by the FBI, saying he didn’t want to confirm the existence of classified information.
Following Flynn’s dismissal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian probes after acknowledging that he met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Trump supporters, including Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and energy consultant Carter Page, have denied any improprieties in their contacts with Russian officials or intermediaries. Documents released last week by congressional Democrats show Flynn received more than $45,000 from RT, the Russian government-backed television network, for his participation at a December 2015 gala where he sat at Putin’s table.
Trump preemptively weighed in on the proceedings Monday morning, saying it was a political attack meant to undermine his administration.
“James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning, using an acronym for President of the United States and referring to the former director of national intelligence. “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!”
Trump didn’t address the wiretapping claim on Monday. He alleged in a March 4 tweet that former Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped, a claim denied by Obama administration officials.
Trump said Congress should be investigating leaks that have harmed his young administration.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” the president said in a Twitter post Monday. “Must find leaker now!”