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Intelligence chiefs sidestep Russia probe questions in Senate hearing

June 7, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
A Senate hearing that was supposed to be about foreign surveillance became a high-stakes dance over the Russia investigation and President Trump. Senators asked top intelligence officials if they knew whether President Trump had sought to influence the probe, but they declined to discuss conversations with the president about Russia or James Comey. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff for a recap.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the release of the Comey statement today came not long after top intelligence officials appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In public session, at least, they declined to discuss conversations with the president about Russia or about James Comey.

Our Lisa Desjardins begins the coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: This was supposed to be about FISA, the foreign surveillance law used to thwart terror attacks. Instead, the Senate Intelligence hearing became a high-stakes dance over the Russia investigation and President Trump.

National Security Agency director Michael Rogers began by saying:

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, Director, National Security Agency: I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection during that same period of service, I don’t recall ever feeling pressured to do so.

LISA DESJARDINS: But, after that, it was a day of senators’ questions and intelligence officials’ sidesteps.

SEN. MARK WARNER,  Vice Chair, Select Committee on Intelligence: Did the president — the reports that are out there — ask you in any way, shape or form to back off or downplay the Russia investigation?

ADM. MICHAEL ROGERS: I’m not going to discuss the specifics of conversations with the president of the United States.

LISA DESJARDINS: Adding gravity today, a flurry of new headlines overnight. The New York Times reported that former FBI Director James Comey asked not to be left alone with President Trump, for fear of being pressured. The Washington Post said the president asked the director of national intelligence to intervene in the FBI’s probe of former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

That DNI, Dan Coats, was in today’s hearing and wouldn’t confirm or deny the story.

DAN COATS, Director of U.S. National Intelligence: I’m willing to come before the committee and tell you what I know and what I don’t know. What I’m not willing to do is to share what I think is confidential information that ought to be protected in an open hearing.

LISA DESJARDINS: Republican Marco Rubio began by defending the president.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: I actually think, if what is being said to the media is untrue, then it is unfair to the president of the United States.

LISA DESJARDINS: But in an effort to bolster that view, he got confusion.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Is anyone aware of any effort by anyone in the White House or elsewhere to seek advice on how to influence any investigation?

MAN: My answer is absolutely no, Senator.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: No one has anything to add to that?

MAN: I don’t understand the question.

LISA DESJARDINS: Democrat Martin Heinrich went further, pressing Coats if Trump asked him to blunt the investigation.

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH, D-N.M.: You could clear an awful lot up by simply saying, it never happened.

DAN COATS: I don’t share — I don’t share with the general public conversations that I have with the president or many of my administrative colleagues within the administration that I believe are — shouldn’t be shared.

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH: Well, I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes.

LISA DESJARDINS: Independent Angus King hammered the intel chiefs for neither answering nor explaining why they weren’t answering.

SEN. ANGUS KING, I-Maine: Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, then let’s know about it. If there isn’t, answer the questions.

ADM. MICHAEL ROGERS: I stand by the comments I have made. I’m not interested in repeating myself, sir. And I don’t mean that in a contentious way.

SEN. ANGUS KING: Well, I do mean it in a contentious way. I don’t understand why you’re not answering our questions.

LISA DESJARDINS: Ultimately, the top two intel chiefs said they were waiting for more guidance from the White House, while Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe indicated they don’t want to harm the current special investigation.

As for President Trump himself, he was in Cincinnati for an infrastructure event, and avoided all talk of Russia or the FBI, but, online, he did announce Christopher Wray as his nominee for the new FBI director. Wray is a criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who headed the criminal division at the Department of Justice.

He’s also known for representing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in his so-called Bridgegate scandal. But before any new director starts, the spotlight remains on the man just fired from the job, who testifies on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Lisa joins us now from the Capitol.

Lisa, it was a riveting hearing. You talked to some of the senators afterwards. What are they saying?

LISA DESJARDINS: I think they’re actually drawing two conclusions from today.

One, Judy, Democrats feel increasingly that this Trump administration has a real problem with both the investigation and how it is handling it. Two, the second conclusion, Democrats and Republicans alike are not just frustrated. They’re now concerned about the lack of answers that they got today and that they have been getting in the congressional probe here.

I spoke to Senator John McCain, a man who you will remember wished he was an ex-president right now. He said after walking away from that hearing he felt that the balance of power has clearly shifted to the executive.

What they’re saying here, Judy, is they’re worried about Congress’ power and Congress’ responsibility to look into these matters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, on James Comey, we did get his opening statement, and we have been dissecting that on the program. But what are the senators looking for from him tomorrow?

LISA DESJARDINS: I got to tell you, Judy, that written statement has really shifted expectations here on Capitol Hill.

For one, I think Democrats now are very happy to see that Comey, indeed, plans to lay out all the red flags that he saw in his conversations with President Trump. They will certainly spend a lot of time on that. Republicans, meanwhile, we will see what they ask. We know some of their questions will push back at Mr. Comey, because he testified previously in committee, he indicated that he didn’t think there was any political pressure on him.

Expect that kind of pushback. But I think, overall, Judy, this day began here on Capitol Hill with many people thinking James Comey’s testimony might not live up to its very prominent billing. But now, Judy, it looks like it just might.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it was already going to — everybody was watching it, and now everyone — more than everyone will be watching. And I know you are going to be there for us tomorrow at the Capitol.

Lisa, thank you.

And we will be here with live coverage of tomorrow’s Senate hearings with former FBI Director James Comey. That’s beginning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern here on PBS and online at pbs.org/newshour.

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