James Comey's big Capitol Hill testimony essentially became 2 separate hearings
FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers took to Capitol Hill Monday to testify during what became essentially two separate hearings before the House Intelligence Committee.
Democrats on the panel were focused on drawing connections among President Donald Trump, his campaign, and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Their Republican counterparts appeared to wage war on the leakers of classified information to the press, particularly those who provided the information that led to Michael Flynn's ouster as national security adviser.
In a number of circumstances, Democrats and Republicans both used their opportunities to ask questions of Comey and Rogers to enter lengthy statements into the record that neither director could provide answers to.
At its conclusion, the biggest takeaways from the day-long affair included Comey's revelation of the FBI's ongoing investigation - which started in July, he said - into any potential connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government officials who worked to manipulate the election.
Comey also asserted that the entire Department of Justice was unable to find any evidence that backed up Trump's explosive allegations that President Barack Obama illegally wiretapped him prior to Election Day, claims from which White House press secretary Sean Spicer later said the administration, and the president, were not backing down.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, used his opening statement to list a number of connections that tie the Trump team to Russia in some way.
"Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?" he said just prior to Comey announcing the existence of the FBI investigation. "Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere."
"We simply don't know, not yet," he continued. 'And we owe it to the country to find out."
Democrats asked Comey and Rogers about a number of individuals with connections to Trump: Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Caputo, Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson, and Roger Stone among them. The directors almost always answered with a variation of the following: "No thoughts," "I don't," and "I can't."
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the chair of the committee, said the panel doesn't have "any evidence" of collusion between Trump officials and Russia. And fellow Republicans frequently cited a statement made by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said he had no evidence of such collusion. Clapper responded later Monday, saying he could not account for subsequent intelligence that was gathered after he left his post at the onset of the Trump administration.
For Republicans, backing up Trump's earlier attacks aimed at leakers of information pertaining to the Russia-related controversy hanging a cloud over the early days of his administration to media outlets such The New York Times and The Washington Post was at the top of the agenda. Earlier in the morning, Trump fired off the following on Twitter: "The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information."
"Must find leaker now!" he said.
As Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah said late in the hearing, the leakers are "arrogant" and "cowards" who "hide behind some New York Times reporter."
"I hope you crack them on the head," he said to Comey and Rogers, later adding that classified leaks happen far too often.
In an exchange with Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, Rogers answered a sustained line of questioning about who in his organization would have the authority to "unmask" Flynn's identity, with Rooney citing a Washington Post story that listed nine intelligence officials it said spoke to the outlet on the matter.
And Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who gained national prominence as the leader of the House Select Committee on the Benghazi terror attack, offered some of the most intense questioning related to punishment for those who leak information to the press, which Comey said is "a serious crime."
At one point, Gowdy even asked if there was "an exception in the law for reporters who want to break a story," suggesting reporters who write stories on the basis of classified, leaked intelligence may be criminally liable.
"I know the department struggled with it, the Fourth Circuit struggled with it, lots of people have struggled with it but you're not aware of an exception in the current dissemination of classified information statute that carves out an exception for reporters?" Gowdy asked.
"No, I'm not aware of anything carved out in the statute," Comey responded. "I don't think a reporter's been prosecuted certainly in my lifetime though."
Carl Bernstein, the famed Watergate reporter who now works for CNN, took to Twitter to slam the "hypocrisy" of "decrying classified 'leaks.'"
"I can state w/confidence that many intel members now decrying 'leaks' of classified info have themselves 'leaked' classified info knowingly," he wrote, adding, " Hypocrisy re these members --from both parties-- decrying classified 'leaks' in context of this hearing remarkable."
He also specifically targeted Gowdy.
"Prime example of wholesale classified 'leaking' to press by members of congress (and hypocrisy): Gowdy Committee Benghazi investigation," he wrote.
But the episodes helped create fodder for Spicer during his Monday briefing.
As he was answering a question related to Comey's revelation about the ongoing FBI investigation into potential ties between Trump and Russia, the press secretary cited the testimony related to the leaking of information.
"A lot of things that aren't being covered in this hearing that I think are interesting," he said. "A lot of areas that still need to be covered."
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