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Two bombshells: FBI investigating Russian meddling and no evidence Obama wiretapped Trump

Highlights of Intelligence panel hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. — FBI Director James Comey testified Monday before the House Select Committee on Intelligence and did not waste any time or mince any words in answering the great question looming over American politics. He dropped the bombshell in his opening statement.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said. “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.”

Comey added, “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

The existence of the investigation was an open secret. Nonetheless, it is extraordinary for the Department of Justice and FBI to even acknowledge the existence of an investigation of this scope. There can be no doubt any longer that the progress of the FBI investigations, and the investigations of congressional intelligence committees, will be a cloud over the new administration for the foreseeable future.

Director Comey had one more bombshell for the committee. Asked by ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Ill, if the allegations President Donald Trump made in a series of tweets that former President Obama ordered surveillance of Trump Tower, Comey said, “I have no information to support such tweets.” Comey said the same of the Justice Department. “The department has no information that supports those tweets.” Comey also said no president — and no single individual — could order such surveillance.

Admiral Michael Rogers, National Security Agency Director, also denied that there is any indication that Trump was wiretapped by British agencies, as the president has claimed in tweets.

Under questioning, Comey stood by the public report released by the intelligence community on January 6 “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.”  That report concluded: “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Comey did note that Russia’s meddling in the election was especially “loud,” as if they didn’t care if they were caught. He speculated that one goal of the Russians was “freaking people out” about the legitimacy of the American election.

Republicans prodded Comey and Rogers to declare they had no evidence of actual collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign officials or associates, but they refused to comment. Comey and Rogers did say, however, that they had no indication that Russian hacking or operations changed vote counts in any states.

Republicans also pounded away at leaks coming out of the intelligence agencies and FBI, trying to make that a top issue of the day.

For their part, Democrats asked numerous questions about ties between specific Trump associates such as former NSC Director Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort and Russia. They were met by unwavering and polite expressions of “no comment.”  Some members expressed frustration that Comey was willing to make more detailed comments about the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigations that the current investigation, which Comey denied.

Long before today’s hearing was gaveled into order, President Donald Trump was giving his own unofficial testimony in his preferred forum, Twitter:

Over the weekend, President Trump’s job approval ratings hit new lows, according to Gallup. He can take some comfort that his 37 percent disapproval rating is 12 points higher than Richard Nixon’s in the weeks before his resignation and nine points higher than George W. Bush’s at the bottom of the 2008 financial crash.

At the end of the day, the highest authorities definitively smacked down Trump’s multiple allegations that his predecessor spied on him. There can be no more lingering doubt that the FBI is engaged in a massive investigation into Russian interference in the American elections of 2016. This is, of course, a major issue of national security, but so far it has been treated more as a story about dirty tricks, small scandals and propaganda wars. Today’s hearings could mark a change in how Russia’s 2016 operations are viewed by voters.

With that in mind, ranking member Schiff said, “We would benefit from the work of an independent commission.”

Toward the end of the session, Comey did express a strong warning about Russia’s efforts to undermine America’s democracy: “They’ll be back.”

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