Monday morning’s House Intelligence Committee hearing on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was just one step in a process that will clearly drag on for some time. But it was evident within the first few hours of the testimony from National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey that there are two very separate directions members of Congress would like to see it move in.
Not surprisingly, the direction any given member prefers is closely correlated to the side of the aisle on which he or she sits.
The two initial headlines out of the hearing both came early, in statements from Comey. He confirmed the widely reported fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice as a whole has no information to support President Trump’s claim, made on Twitter earlier this month, that former President Obama personally ordered that Trump’s phones be tapped during the presidential election.
Not only did Comey say there was no information to support the claim, but both he and Rogers said that, given the system in place for authorizing domestic surveillance activities, the president did not have the authority to give such an order.
“So, President Obama could not unilaterally order a wiretap?” asked Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democrat.
“No president could,” Comey said.
Rogers also angrily shot down the suggestion repeated by the White House that President Obama had used the British intelligence services to spy on Trump, saying such a move would be “expressly against” a longstanding intelligence-sharing arrangement between the US and its closest allies.
Comey also took the unusual step of confirming that there is an ongoing investigation into not just the involvement of Russian agents efforts to disrupt the presidential election by stealing and disseminating information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but that the agency is also investigating whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
The FBI’s effort, he said in his opening statement, “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.”
With the two biggest bits of news out of the way, the next step was for the members of the committee to react to them, and they did so in notably different ways.
From the outset of the hearing, Republicans on the panel were laser-focused on the fact that information about the investigation into Russian meddling in the election -- particularly information that seems to have been derived from classified sources -- was leaked to the media. They repeatedly stressed the need to investigate and prosecute individuals who leaked information to the press, and gravely warned that the leaks might endanger the renewal of a specific law giving agencies like the NSA the ability to monitor the communications of non-U.S. persons overseas.
A subject that repeatedly came up was the media reports, citing intelligence community sources, that revealed that former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had held undisclosed telephone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, prior to Trump’s inauguration, in which he discussed the sensitive issue of US sanctions on Moscow.
Republican lawmakers, like South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, pressed Rogers on the question of who would have the authority to “unmask” the identity of a US person caught up incidentally in the surveillance of a foreign agent. Gowdy made a point of naming several former members of the Obama White House who might have had such authority, insinuating that the information might have come from the former president’s closest advisers.
Such surveillance is supposed to take place only under very closely controlled circumstances, with the results held in the strictest secrecy. Several GOP members of the panel warned the witnesses that the apparent breach of that secrecy could make it more difficult for lawmakers to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the collection of the communications of non-US persons located outside the United States.
Both Comey and Rogers, at different times, felt the need to clarify to lawmakers that the intelligence being discussed during the hearing, the release of which the Republicans found so troubling, was not actually collected under the agencies’ Section 702 authority in the first place.
For their part, the Democrats showed little interest in the way information about contacts between members of Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials had gone public, focusing instead on what the existence of those connections might say about the influence Moscow had or may still have over the current president.
Their questions on that subject, though, went largely unanswered. Comey in particular, though he had been authorized to reveal the existence of an investigation into Russian involvement in the election and of possible coordination with the Trump campaign, was reluctant to expand on it any further.
Comey was particularly reticent when Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat, laid out a litany of known and suspected contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, repeatedly declining to address questions about individuals.
The separate focus of the two parties when it comes to this investigation is likely to be pronounced in future hearings, perhaps as soon as next week, when the Intelligence Committee hopes to hear testimony from other former senior intelligence community figures.
And if Republicans show any sign of wavering, they’ll likely receive some Twitter-fueled encouragement from the president. Indeed, Trump was angrily tweeting in advance of the hearing Monday morning, at one point insisting that, despite the unanimous view of the intelligence community that Russia intervened on his behalf, that the whole thing was actually a set up by the Democrats.
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” the president claimed.