As their colleagues on Capitol Hill kicked off a flurry of confirmation hearings for US president-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee convened today (Jan. 10) on another matter.
The heads of the CIA, FBI, and the National Security Agency came to testify, along with James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, about their findings of Russian influence in the 2016 US election.
Trump loomed large here, too, with the senators trying to determine whether the spy chiefs were investigating any ties between the incoming president’s campaign and the Kremlin. One obvious place to start was with FBI director James Comey, who has set a precedent for speaking publicly about the existence of an agency investigation. He famously announced the reopening of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, for example, just days before the election—which she has blamed for her Nov. 8 loss to Trump.
When two Democratic senators asked if Comey was looking into the Trump camp’s alleged contact with the Kremlin throughout his campaign, he repeatedly refused to be drawn. The choice of phrasing for his dodge was not ideal: ”Especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation,” Comey said.
Oregon senator Ron Wyden struggled to contain his bafflement; another Democrat, Maine senator Angus King, then swept in with a burn: “The irony of your making that statement here I can’t avoid,” King said.
Newly elected California senator Kamala Harris then stepped in to fully spell out his inconsistency:
“The new standard that was created over the summer and fall regarding the investigation into secretary Clinton’s email server was that there was a unique public interest in the transparency of that issue. Particularly given the findings of your report, I’m not sure I can think of an issue of more serious public interest than this one. This committee needs to understand what the FBI does and does not know about campaign communications with Russia.”
On a later question about whether Obama had politicized the intelligence agencies’ inquiry into Russian hacking (they all said he didn’t), Comey seemed to momentarily win back a modicum of sympathy, telling King, “I hope I’ve demonstrated by now, I’m tone deaf when it comes to politics and that’s the way it should be.”