WASHINGTON – FBI Director James Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.
The extraordinary disclosure came near the beginning of a sprawling, 5 1/2-hour public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in which Comey also said there is "no information" that supports President Donald Trump's claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign.
Comey repeatedly refused to answer whether specific individuals close to the president had fallen under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, "so we don't wind up smearing people" who may not be charged with a crime.
The FBI traditionally does not disclose the existence of an investigation, "but in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest," Comey said, "it may be appropriate to do so."
Comey also said he was authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the electoral process. He drew fire last year after he notified Congress 11 days before the presidential election – and against the department's strong advice not to – that the FBI had reopened an examination of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
That move, Democrats charged, hurt Clinton as she was heading into the home stretch of her campaign. Now, the tables are turned.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the committee chairman, urged Comey to reveal if and when the bureau has information clearing any of its targets, and to do so as quickly as possible.
"There's a big gray cloud that you've now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country, and so the faster that you can get to the bottom of this, it's going to be better for all Americans," Nunes said.
Comey said that the investigation began in late July and that for a counterintelligence probe, "that's a fairly short period of time."
The hearing came amid the controversy fired up by Trump more than two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.
"I have no information that supports those tweets," Comey said. "We have looked carefully inside the FBI," and agents found nothing to support those claims.
Under questioning from the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., Comey said no president could order such surveillance. He added that the Justice Department had asked him to tell the committee that that agency has no such information, either.
Remarkably, Trump's presidential Twitter account continued to fire away throughout the widely watched hearing, live-tweeting comments and assertions that lawmakers then referred to and used to question Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.
Comey and Rogers both predicted that Russian intelligence agencies will continue to seek to meddle in U.S. political campaigns, because they consider their work in the 2016 presidential race to have been successful.
In an influence campaign that the U.S. intelligence community in January said was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, hackers working for Russian spy agencies penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016, as well as the email accounts of Democratic officials. The material was relayed to WikiLeaks, the intelligence community reported, and the anti-secrecy group launched a series of damaging email releases that began just before the Democratic National Convention last summer and continued through the fall. The Russians' goal was not only to undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also to harm Clinton's campaign and boost Trump's chances of winning, the intelligence community concluded.
"They'll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018," Comey said. "One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, introducing chaos and discord" into the electoral process.
Rogers agreed: "I fully expect they will maintain this level of activity." And, he said, Moscow is conducting a similar "active measures" campaign in Europe, where France and Germany are holding elections this year.
The panel's Democrats focused on possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. Schiff outlined a series of events that took place last July and August that he said appear to be "pivotal" to the question of whether there was improper contact.
He ticked off a list of more than a dozen incidents, including former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page's trip to Moscow and alleged meeting with Igor Sechin, a Putin confidante and chief executive of the energy company Rosneft; and Trump political adviser Roger Stone's communication with the "Russian cutout Guccifer 2.0," after which Stone predicted that Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta's emails would be published.
"Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible," Schiff said. "But it is also possible, may be more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated. … We simply don't know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out."
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer stressed that an investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates doesn't mean that there was any.
"Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things," Spicer said. "I think it's fine to look into it, but at the end of the day they're going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had." Said Spicer: "There's no evidence of a Trump-Russian collusion."
The committee Republicans, meanwhile, seemed most exercised by leaks to the media. Information shared with the press has resulted in stories since the election on the intelligence community's conclusion about Moscow's desire to see Trump win, and on contacts Trump administration officials or close associates had with Russian officials.
One story in particular that apparently upset the Republicans was a Feb. 9 piece by The Washington Post reporting that Trump's then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed the subject of sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in the month before Trump took office. The Post reported that the discussions were observed under routine, court-approved monitoring of Kislyak's calls. Flynn, who had denied to Vice President Pence that he had spoken about sanctions, was forced to resign.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., suggested that the leaks were political. He asked Comey whether the intelligence community had shared such information with Obama or his attorney general, Loretta Lynch.
Comey – who had acknowledged that in general, senior officials, including Lynch, would have access to such information – said he would not comment on his conversations with Obama or Trump.
As the hearing was going on, Trump's presidential Twitter account – in an apparent dig at Comey and carrying the suggestion that Obama administration officials were behind the leaks – posted the tweet: "FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia."
At another point, the account tweeted out, "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process."
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., noting that the tweet had gone out to 16.1 million Americans, asked Comey, "Is that accurate?"
"We've offered no opinion . . . on potential impact because it's not something we looked at," Comey said.
Nunes sought an admission from the officials that the leaks were illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs foreign intelligence-gathering on U.S. soil or U.S. persons overseas.
"Yes," Comey answered. "In addition to being a breach of our trust with the FISA court."
Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., pressed Rogers to clarify under what circumstances it would be legitimate for Americans caught on tape speaking with people under surveillance to have their identities disclosed publicly.
Rogers stressed that the identities of U.S. persons picked up through "incidental collection" – in which investigating agents hear the words of people conversing with the targets of a wiretap – are disclosed only on a "valid, need-to-know" basis, and usually only when there is criminal activity or a potential threat to the United States at play.
Comey confirmed that individuals within the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and others – including personnel in the White House, in some situations – could have requested the unmasking of the names of U.S. persons. But he stressed that only the collecting agency, whether it's the FBI, the NSA or the CIA, can unmask the identities of people.