Trump and Putin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – The FBI is investigating the possibility that Moscow coordinated with senior officials in Donald Trump’s former campaign for president to disrupt last year’s election and undermine Hillary Clinton, the bureau’s director confirmed Monday.
Speaking at a House Intelligence Committee hearing, director James Comey also said the FBI has no evidence to back up the president’s assertion that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ordered surveillance of him at Trump Tower in New York during the campaign.
“The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey told the committee.
“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.”
US security aide Flynn quits over Russia links (credit: REUTERS)
US intelligence agencies concluded in December that Russia tried to help Trump by releasing hacked material on the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign. Comey said Moscow had long opposed Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
The intelligence community and relevant congressional committees have also concluded that the president’s claim of wiretapping has no basis in fact.
“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey told the hearing in a rare public testimony.
Responding to the director’s announcement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the FBI investigation would “vindicate” the president, who maintains he is being falsely accused of colluding with a foreign power to undermine American democracy.
“Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” Spicer said.
But Comey told the committee that the FBI only opens investigations when there is a “credible allegation of wrongdoing or a reasonable basis to believe” criminality took place.
The hearing featured several top Democratic lawmakers running through a list of known ties between former Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin, including some current White House officials. The committee’s Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, said Comey’s announcement cast a “cloud” over the young administration.
Trump has frequently urged better relations with Russia, which has been at odds with the US in recent years over Moscow’s role in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, detailed activities by Trump advisers or associates with ties to Russia, including former election campaign manager Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who was forced out as Trump’s national security adviser after talking to the Russian ambassador and then misrepresenting the conversation to Vice President Mike Pence.
“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, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”
Trump’s tweet on March 4 about wiretapping, which was made without supporting evidence, pulled attention away from the claims of Russian interference in the election.
He made the claim two days after Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who had met with Russia’s US ambassador last fall, said he would remove himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the election.
Seventeen US intelligence agencies have jointly concluded that Russia interfered in the US election, seeking to harm Clinton and the American democratic process to Trump’s benefit.
And they will not stop, Comey warned on Monday: “They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018,” he said.Reuters contributed to this report.