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FBI director confirms investigation into Russian election interference

James Comey (L), director of the FBI, and Michael Rogers (R), director of the National Security Agency, testify during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. ( Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

‘No information’ supporting President Trump’s wiretap claim: Comey

The FBI is investigating the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, FBI Director James Comey confirmed during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Monday. It was the first public hearing about whether President Donald Trump or members of his team were in contact with Russian officials during the election.

“The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said. “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, testifying beside National Security Agency (NSA) Director Michael Rogers, also told the committee that the FBI had “no information” buttressing Trump’s repeated claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped calls at Trump Tower during Trump’s campaign.

For his part, Rogers said that the NSA had no evidence supporting Trump’s wiretap claims, or any information suggesting Obama asked British intelligence officials to do so. Trump’s repeated claim “certainly frustrates” the United States’s relationship with Britain, a principal ally, Rogers added.

Trump, in a series of tweets Monday morning, called the claims of collusion between his team and Russian officials “FAKE NEWS,” later tweeting that Comey and Rogers said, “Russia did not influence electoral process,” during their Monday testimony. Asked about the president’s assertions, Comey said, “It certainly wasn’t our intention to say that today. We don’t have any information on that subject.”

The Trump team, the Russian government, and the U.S. intelligence community

Monday’s hearing is the latest event in the ongoing inquiry into the Trump team’s rumored relationship with the Russian government. Allegations that Trump and members of his team have possible financial and political ties to Russia have been widespread since the election, fueled by findings from 17 intelligence agencies that all said that the Russian government led an influence campaign against the Democratic Party during Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

As the intelligence has been reported on, Trump and his team have continued to insist that they did not collude with Russia — despite being peppered by leaked information from members of the intelligence community and the introduction of a controversial, unsubstantiated dossier alleging that Russian leaders had damning information on Trump. The president’s team has dismissed the claims as political attacks and criticized the leaks, which Trump said were the “real story.”

Trump’s counter-offense continued even after the resignation of his National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, in February, after it emerged that Flynn had spoken with a Russian diplomat about sanctions before Trump’s inauguration. Then, as before, Trump’s defense hinged on the actions of journalists who reported the story, saying Flynn was treated “very, very unfairly” by “the fake media.”

In March, it was revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another high profile administration official, had also interacted with Russian officials twice during Trump’s campaign, when he was a senator and key Trump surrogate — encounters he did not disclose during  questioning at his confirmation hearing. Sessions later recused himself from any investigations related to Trump’s campaign, saying “I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in.”

Committee, toeing partisan lines, is split on two key issues

Throughout the intelligence committee hearing on Monday, Republicans and Democrats appeared split on what the issue at hand was. Through their questions, the Democrats seemed to believe the hearing was a referendum on whether or not Russia’s efforts unfairly influenced the election against Clinton, something Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif) called a “shocking” betrayal of American democracy. Republican members, on the other hand, appeared to think the issue was about whether or not journalists should be prosecuted for published classified information from the intelligence community.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) implored Comey in a tense back-and-forth to admit whether or not the U.S. law barring officials from disclosing classified material carved out any legal exception or exemption for journalists who publish that information. During his questioning, Gowdy insinuated that the leaks were the doing of holdovers from the Obama administration, and said they profoundly jeopardized the intelligence community’s credibility.

Taken at face value, the contrast in questioning from both parties signals only a difference in priorities. Even so, Gowdy’s calls for the prosecution of journalists, coupled with Trump’s February directive to the Department of Justice to further investigate leaks, have added to speculation that the nation’s free press could be under threat.

On Monday, Gowdy appeared not to know that the First Amendment does establish an exception for journalists who publish classified material, a protection etched out by the 1971 Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States.

“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in the 1971 majority opinion. “The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”