J. Scott Applewhite/AP
FBI Director James Comey, left, joined by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, testifies on Capitol Hill, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

In day of testimony, 'Russia problem' deepens for Trump White House

An FBI probe of possible Russian links with the Trump campaign has gone on for months, Director Comey confirms. Testifying to a House panel, he and NSA Director Rogers agree: Russian attempts to meddle in US elections are 'not likely to stop.'

Russia is a serious problem the White House can’t just tweet away.

That may be the bottom line from an extraordinary congressional hearing Monday that publicly confirmed some of the biggest aspects of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the US election, while adding a few new and intriguing smaller details.

If nothing else, the Kremlin is probably pleased with its effort to sow discord and division in US politics, agreed FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers at the House Intelligence Committee hearing.

It will likely try again in 2018 and 2020 to hack US politics in some manner, they said. “Absent some change in the dynamic, this is not likely to stop,” said Adm. Rogers of Russia’s multi-pronged effort to influence American elections.

The biggest news from the hearing was probably Mr. Comey’s announcement that the FBI has been investigating possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign for months. That includes a look at whether there was “any coordination” between the groups in regards to Russian efforts to influence the US election, Comey said.

News reports have long speculated on the existence of such an FBI probe. Comey’s announcement made it official. It’s unusual for the FBI to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, but sometimes circumstances are unusual, and it’s necessary.

“This is one of those circumstances,” Comey said.

No support for 'those tweets'

Perhaps the second biggest news was that both Comey and Admiral Rogers knocked down President Trump’s assertion that as a candidate he was wiretapped in Trump Tower by his predecessor.

Trump made that claim in a series of tweets earlier this month.

“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said. “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that President Trump still stands behind the unsubstantiated allegation. Administration officials have argued that Trump’s claim is broader than its literal meaning, and that electronic surveillance of any Trump campaign associate, even incidental, could meet its criteria.

The third bit of big news from the congressional hearing Monday may have been Rogers’s statement that there is also no evidence that then-President Obama asked the British to spy on Trump, an assertion made by a Fox News analyst who was then quoted by Mr. Spicer from his podium in the White House briefing room.

There were smaller revelations as well that in their own way were quite intriguing, noted Kate Brannen, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Writing at the blog “Just Security,” Ms. Brannen pointed out that Comey let slip how long the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia has been going on. It dates back to late July, meaning it was already under way as the presidential campaign entered its most intensive stage.

Russian spycraft

In addition, Comey talked a bit about the spycraft Russia used when hacking into Democratic email accounts. After obtaining emails from Clinton campaign officials, Moscow didn’t just hand them directly to WikiLeaks and others. They used “cut-outs,” said Comey, or intermediaries, whose links to Russian intelligence might not be apparent to the recipients of the stolen goods.

In response to questioning, the FBI chief also agreed that Russian intelligence could “co-opt” a target of influence. The person in question might just think they were helping a friend, or business or romantic partner, as opposed to a spook.

Thus a Trump campaign official might have had dealings with Russian intelligence they did not know about.

Comey did say there was no evidence that the Russian meddling actually extended to manipulation of voting machines in key states.

Republican lawmakers at the hearing, meanwhile, vigorously pursued questioning about leaks of classified material, and the importance of plugging them. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina implied that the Department of Justice might want to start to think about prosecuting reporters who receive and print classified info.

On Monday morning Trump tweeted that Russia was “fake news” dreamed up by his political opponents to distract from their embarrassing losses. But on the whole the Trump administration’s Russia problem seemed to deepen in the wake of the public hearing.

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