FBI confirms probe into Russia role in election
WASHINGTONFBI Director James Comey on March 20 confirmed for the first time that the bureau is investigating possible ties between Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia amid allegations that Moscow sought to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
Comey and Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, made clear that their investigation of Moscow and November 2016’s U.S. elections could last for months.
Appearing before a congressional panel, Comey also publicly challenged Trump’s repeated claim that his immediate predecessor as president, Barack Obama, wiretapped his 2016 campaign headquarters in Trump Tower in New York City.
The two officials spent 5.5 hours before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in testimony marked by starkly partisan divides between the panel’s majority Republicans and Democrats.
Comey refused to back away from his claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not simply want Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to lose the election; he wanted Trump to win.
The committee is one of several in the U.S. Congress investigating whether Russia tried to influence the election, mostly by hacking Democratic operatives’ emails and releasing embarrassing information. Russia denies the allegations.
Comey confirmed the FBI has been investigating possible Russian efforts to interfere in the election since July 2016, including any cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. He said that while the Russian government wanted to hurt Clinton’s campaign and help Trump’s, intelligence agencies made no judgment on whether the efforts influenced the outcome.
The FBI traditionally does not disclose the existence of an investigation, “but in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”
He said the fact that an investigation exists does not mean charges would be filed.
Comey also said he was authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the electoral process. He drew fire last year after he notified Congress 11 days before the presidential election – and against the department’s strong advice not to – that the FBI had reopened an examination of Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Trump created a controversy in early March when he tweeted without giving evidence that Obama had wiretapped his campaign while the businessman competed against Clinton.
“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 said.
Leon Panetta, a former U.S. defense secretary and CIA director during the Obama administration, said in an interview that Trump should “acknowledge that he made a mistake and apologize to President Obama.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to help Trump by hacking leading Democrats.
“I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the [intelligence] community,” he said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.”
Asked about Comey, White House spokesman Sean Spicer read a series of quotes from officials – some from the Obama administration – who have said they have seen no signs of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
In a tweet before the hearing, Trump wrote: “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign.”
Spicer said he was unaware of any White House official being under investigation by the FBI.
Trump has frequently urged better relations with Russia, which has been at odds with the United States over Ukraine and the Syrian civil war.
Trump’s March 4 tweet about wiretapping pulled attention away from the claims of Russian election interference. He issued his tweet two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met with Russia’s U.S. ambassador at least twice last year, said he would recuse himself from any investigation of the matter.
The White House has contended in recent days that Trump’s claim of wiretapping referred to general surveillance of the campaign. The White House has not provided evidence of surveillance of any kind.