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Comey confirms Russia probe, but ‘no information’ supporting Trump wiretap claim

March 20, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
FBI Director James Comey offered a rare admission in a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, confirming an ongoing investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election and any potential coordination with the Trump campaign. Comey also said there is no substantial evidence former President Obama ordered a wiretap against President Trump. Lisa Desjardins reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An unusually newsy day in the nation’s capital, even by Washington standards, that make up our two leads: A House committee delves into a possible Russian role in the campaign that elected Donald Trump, and a Senate panel begins hearings on the man chosen by President Trump to serve on the Supreme Court.

We begin with the Russia file, and Lisa Desjardins, who has been watching it all.

LISA DESJARDINS: In a rare open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, a rare admission from the FBI director.

JAMES COMEY, FBI Director: 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.

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.

LISA DESJARDINS: Beside Comey sat National Security Agency Chief Michael Rogers. Both stood by the intelligence community’s earlier report that Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly favored the candidacy of Donald Trump.

JAMES COMEY: Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much, that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

LISA DESJARDINS: Committee Democrats and Republicans pursued sharply different lines of questioning:

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.: In early July, Carter Page, someone candidate Trump identified as one of his national security advisers, travels to Moscow on a trip approved by the Trump campaign.

LISA DESJARDINS: Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff listed contacts between Trump advisers and Russian officials and raised concern.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Many of Trump campaign personnel, including the president himself, have ties to Russia and Russian interests. This is, of course, no crime. On the other hand, if the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it aided or abetted the Russians, it wouldn’t only be a serious crime. It would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history.

LISA DESJARDINS: But committee Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republicans pushed to show that Russians didn’t directly change vote totals.

REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-Calif.: Admiral Rogers, do you have any evidence that Russia cyber-actors changed vote tallies?

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, National Security Agency Director: No, I do not.

LISA DESJARDINS: The president soon after tweeted that: “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia didn’t influence electoral process.”

But, back at the hearing, Democrat Jim Himes pounced, saying a lack of manipulating votes directly is different than no influence at all.

REP. JIM HIMES, D-Conn.: So, it’s not too far of a logical leap to conclude that the assertion that you have told the Congress that there was no influence on the electoral is not quite right?

JAMES COMEY: Right. It certainly wasn’t our intention to say that today, because we don’t have any information on that subject. That’s not something that was looked at.

LISA DESJARDINS: More than anything, Republicans raised alarm over leaks and stories with reportedly classified information and names in the investigation.

REP. TREY GOWDY, R-S.C.: I thought it was against the law to disseminate classified information. Is it?

JAMES COMEY: Oh, yes. Sure, it’s a serious crime.

LISA DESJARDINS: South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy went farther, warning that unless the leaks are stopped, a key provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, may not be reauthorized by Congress this year.

REP. TREY GOWDY: Trust me, you and I both want to see it reauthorized. It’s in jeopardy if we don’t get this resolved.

LISA DESJARDINS: The hearing hit extraordinary territory. Democrats pushed on President Trump’s charges that President Obama wiretapped him.

JAMES COMEY: With respect to the presidents tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets.

LISA DESJARDINS: Republican Chairman Nunes agreed, but didn’t rule out that other measures could have been involved.

REP. DEVIN NUNES: It’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Trump and his aides have refused to back off the surveillance charge. They say it’s veracity is for the investigation to determine.

Meanwhile, today, White House spokesman Sean Spicer defended the president and his campaign, but he also seemed to downplay the campaign role of two key players known for their ties to Russia, former campaign adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: Even General Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign. And then, obviously, there’s been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.

LISA DESJARDINS: At the hearing, over it all was Russia, a country the NSA chief said changed its tactics in 2016.

ADM. MIKE ROGERS: I would say the biggest difference, from my perspective, was both the use of cyber, the hacking as a vehicle to physically gain access, to information to extract that information and then to make it widely publicly available without any alteration or change.

JAMES COMEY: The only thing that I would add is that they were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew what they were doing or that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

LISA DESJARDINS: FBI Director Comey gave a warning.

JAMES COMEY: They will be back. They will be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018. And one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, because they introduced chaos and division and discord.

LISA DESJARDINS: Chairman Nunes closed the hearing with a stark verdict on the five-hour session.

REP. DEVIN NUNES: There is a big, gray cloud that you have now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. And so the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans.

LISA DESJARDINS: For PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol.

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