FBI director James Comey has confirmed for the first time that his agency is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the outcome of the US presidential election.
He told the House intelligence committee today the Trump campaign had been secretly under investigation since July – several months before the election.
This revelation is extraordinary for several reasons.
First, it has put beyond doubt that a sitting president’s entourage is under investigation for possibly conniving with a foreign adversary to put that president into power.
Second, it began months before the election and is still continuing – in secret, up to now. However, two weeks before the election, Comey publicly announced he had re-opened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Some considered that an attempt to intervene in the election.
Comey also said there was no basis for Donald Trump’s claims to have been wiretapped by Barack Obama. Republican and Democratic leaders on the committee agreed.
Comey’s appearance, flanked by the National Security Agency director, Admiral Michael Rogers, marked a remarkable and unprecedented threshold in US political history.
What made the moment even more extraordinary was Trump’s tweeted commentary on – and misrepresenting of – the hearing as it was happening.
Comey and Rogers refused to answer scores of questions speculating on who in Trump’s orbit could be part of the wide-ranging investigation, even Trump himself.
But they made many key points over the course of several extraordinary hours of testimony:
- The counter-intelligence investigation into Trump-Moscow links began in late July 2016 and is still ongoing
- More than one person associated with the Trump campaign is under investigation for their ties to the Russian government
- Both said there was no information to support Trump’s claims that he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration
- Rogers rejected White House suggestions that the British spy agency GCHQ had helped the Obama administration spy on Trump Tower and said the claim was “frustrating to a key ally”
- The Russian intervention in the election was “unusually loud”, as if Moscow did not care about being caught
Comey repeatedly stressed the unusual nature of the occasion, which he said led him to break with longstanding FBI practice of never commenting on ongoing investigations, although he had himself done this over the Clinton announcement.
He said the investigation included the possibility that criminal acts had been committed.
“I cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining,” Comey said, adding he would provide more details to the committee behind closed doors.
As the hearing unfolded, Trump’s official @POTUS accounts sent out tweets, giving live commentary with embedded clips of the proceedings.
One of the tweets claimed: “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.”
The tweet made its way to the committee, with the result that Comey and Rogers were confronted with it. They said there was no basis for that assertion.
The FBI director said it became clear early on in the investigation that it was Vladimir Putin’s intention to help the Trump campaign with Russian intervention, because of the strength of his hatred for Hillary Clinton.
He said it was “impossible to say” when the investigation would end.
Splits between the Republican and Democratic members were evident from the start of the hearing. Republicans tried to emphasise that the issue was leaks from intelligence agencies while Democrats insisted it was the contacts between members of the Trump campaign team and Russian officials, most of which had been denied by the Trump camp.