In the first half of a public hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, the nation’s top intelligence officials refused to address allegations that President Donald Trump had asked them to publicly downplay the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Wednesday’s hearing was slated to discuss Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is set to expire at the end of the year. But at the onset, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia shifted the discussion, and asked the chiefs whether the president had asked them to try to get the FBI to back off its investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Both Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers declined to discuss their interactions with Trump—but both insisted they’d never felt “pressured” by Trump to do anything illegal or immoral.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Coats told associates President Trump had asked him to convince former FBI Director James Comey to back off Flynn, who was fired in February after reports surfaced that he’d misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior White House officials about the substance of his phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The Post also previously reported that Trump had implored both Coats and Rogers to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government.
“There are reports out in the press that the president separately appealed to you, Admiral Rogers, and to you, Director Coats, to downplay the Russian investigation,” said Warner. “And now we’ve got additional reports, and we want to give you a chance to confirm or deny these.”
Rogers was asked to respond first. While refusing to speak in “theoreticals,” Rogers said that he would not discuss “specifics” regarding his interactions with the president. He offered this instead:
“In the three plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believed to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.”
The NSA chief further refused to confirm or deny the existence of a memo allegedly written by a senior NSA official—whom Warner has indicated he intends to have testify—that documented his conversation with Trump. “I stand by the comments that I have made to you today, sir,” Rogers replied repeatedly.
Warner’s attention then turned to Coats, who replaced the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in March.
But Coats, too, offered his best brick wall impression: “I do not feel it’s appropriate for me to… in a public session… um... in which confidential conversations between the president and myself, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to address that in a public session.”
Seemingly fazed by the response, Warner pressed Coats further, reminding him of his promise to testify about “what I know and what I don’t know” before the investigative committee. “We are before that investigative committee,” Warner said.
Coats’s response in full:
“Well, I stand by my previous statement that we are in a public session here and I do not feel that it is appropriate for me to address confidential information—most of the information I’ve shared with the president is directed toward intelligence matters during our global briefings every morning at the White House, or most mornings that the president and I are in town. But for intelligence related matters or any other matters that have been discussed, it is my belief that it’s inappropriate for me to share that with the public.”
Later in the hearing, Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who was also sworn alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said the FBI investigation was moving forward—but he, too, repeatedly refused to answer the senators’ questions. His conversations with Comey “fall within the scope of issues investigated” by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who now leads the Russia probe as special counsel.
McCabe refused to answer questions about what Trump may have told Comey, deferring to the former FBI director who is slated to appear before the panel tomorrow. The former FBI director is expected to publicly refute President Trump’s claim that Comey told him multiple times that he was not under investigation.
The New York Times reported yesterday evening that, prior to being fired by the president, Comey told attorney General Jeff Sessions that he didn’t want to be left alone with the president. The implication is that Comey was asking Sessions to protect the FBI investigation from interference from the White House. Comey will likely confirm or deny the existence of a memo he allegedly authored detailing his conversation with Trump, in which the president supposedly asked him to drop the probe’s focus on Flynn.