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Five takeaways from the House hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. election

WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee usually meets behind closed doors to talk about secrets. But on Monday it made an exception, noting the intense public interest in its topic: the interference by Russian intelligence in the U.S. election. The hearing shed some official light on a topic that has been the subject of a great deal of media reporting — and gave members of both parties a chance to score political points. Here are the highlights.

Yes, there is a Russia-Trump investigation

James B. Comey, the FBI director, confirmed early in Monday's hearing that the bureau is indeed, as has been widely reported, investigating the interference by Russian intelligence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — including any possible collusion by aides and associates of President Donald Trump.

Comey said the investigation will cover "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."

The FBI director noted that the inquiry is technically a counterintelligence investigation, focusing not on criminal conduct but on Russian intelligence activities. But he said FBI agents will conduct "an assessment of whether any crimes were committed."

Comey noted that usual FBI practice is "not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations," and that the Justice Department had approved his departure from that practice. He did not address what everyone in the room was thinking: that Comey last year famously broke that rule repeatedly to discuss the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state, producing negative publicity that some believe cost her the presidency.

FBI and NSA directors debunk Trump's wiretap claim

In strong statements, both Comey and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, definitively dismissed Trump's March 4 Twitter posts claiming that he and his campaign had been the target of eavesdropping ordered by President Barack Obama.

While the two officials hedged their answers on some questions and declined to answer others, they were unequivocal in rebutting Trump's claims.

"I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI," Comey said. "The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets."

Rogers was asked about another theory, first floated on Fox News and repeated by Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary: that Obama had asked the British spy agency, known as GCHQ, to intercept Trump's communications.

"I've seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity, nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity," Rogers said. Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, asked what he made of official British denunciations of the GCHQ claim as "nonsense and utterly ridiculous."

"Would you agree?" Schiff asked.

"Yes, sir," Rogers said.

Democratic former prosecutor highlights Trump-Russia ties

Schiff, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles early in his career, used his opening statement at the hearing — unusually long at 15 minutes — to weave a circumstantial case of striking and mysterious connections between Trump's associates and Russia.

"The Russians successfully meddled in our democracy and our intelligence agencies have concluded they will do so again," Schiff said. Schiff's statement also noted that is the conclusion of the CIA, the FBI and the NSA, accepted even by most Republicans.

But then he went on to enumerate the many Trump aides believed to have some kind of contact or communication with Russians: Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser; Paul Manafort, Trump's second campaign manager; Roger Stone, a political adviser; Michael T. Flynn, who was forced out as Trump's first national security adviser; and others.

Schiff relied in part on a so-called dossier on Trump-Russia contacts put together by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, who was paid by Trump's Republican rivals and later by Clinton supporters. Steele is "highly regarded" by intelligence colleagues, Schiff noted accurately. But he did not say that the dossier is made up of unproven hearsay from Steele's sources, much of which journalists have been unable to confirm.

Republican prosecutor zeroes in on leaks

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. — another former federal prosecutor — pursued a parallel strategy, but with a different target altogether: The unnamed officials and former officials who have leaked to the media about Trump-Russia issues. What was disturbing, Gowdy suggested, was not the evidence of Russian connections, but the fact that they were disclosed to the public.

In an outraged tone, Gowdy noted Washington Post and New York Times articles citing anonymous sources to report that in conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Flynn had discussed sanctions against Russia with Moscow's ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Such interceptions are highly classified intelligence, Comey confirmed.

"I thought it was against the law to disseminate classified information. Is it?" Gowdy asked.

"Yes, sir," Comey replied. "It's a serious crime."

Comey appeared more uncomfortable when Gowdy asked him about a list of senior Obama administration officials whom the Republican congressman clearly hinted might be the source of leaks. Gowdy questioned the FBI director about which officials were empowered to learn the names of Americans picked up in intelligence intercepts, even when the names were redacted from intelligence reports for privacy reasons.

"Would former Attorney General Loretta Lynch have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?" Gowdy asked.

"In general, yes, as would any attorney general," Comey replied.

Does hurting one candidate mean helping her opponent?

Under questioning from Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, Comey confirmed the intelligence agencies' findings that the goal of Russian interference in the election was to hurt Clinton, a particular target of the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"To be clear, Mr. Conaway, we all agreed with that judgment," Comey said, and Rogers added his assent.

But Conaway repeatedly probed the agencies' additional conclusion: that Russia, and Putin, also wanted to help Trump.

Comey stated what he suggested was obvious: "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."

Conaway attempted a sports analogy — "my wife's Red Raiders are playing the Texas Longhorns" — and Comey gamely followed his lead. "Whoever the Red Raiders are playing, you want the Red Raiders to win, by definition, you want their opponent to lose," the FBI director said.

But their exchange went on for several minutes, exploring a sort of Zen riddle of whether trying to defeat Clinton meant trying to elect Trump.

FBI Director James Comey, left, joined by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. [J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press]

FBI Director James Comey, left, joined by National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. [J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press]

Five takeaways from the House hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. election 03/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, March 20, 2017 4:42pm]
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