The FBI is investigating whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in last year’s election and ensure the defeat of Hillary Clinton.
The explosive confirmation came from FBI Director James Comey, who said his agency has been probing the matter since July. The Russians’ goal in the vote was clear.
“They wanted to hurt our democracy: Hurt her, help him,” Mr. Comey bluntly told the House of Representatives intelligence committee Monday.
And he cautioned that Moscow will try to repeat the operation in future elections. “They’ll be back … in 2020. They may be back in 2018,” he said, referring to the dates of the next presidential and congressional elections.
The revelations cast the electoral system of the world’s most powerful country under the shadow of Russian President Vladimir Putin and ensure questions about the new administration’s connections to him are certain to dog Mr. Trump for months, if not years, to come.
The hearing, at which National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers also testified, further covered Mr. Trump’s accusations – made over Twitter – that former president Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Mr. Comey refuted those claims: “I have no information that supports those tweets. We have looked carefully inside the FBI.”
Investigators had already established that the Russian government was behind a hack of Democratic National Committee servers, in which embarrassing internal e-mails were released through WikiLeaks in a bid to damage Ms. Clinton’s campaign.
And several members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and administration – most prominently Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and fired national security adviser Michael Flynn – have taken heat for their dealings with Russia.
But so far, no evidence has emerged to show a connection between Team Trump’s dealings with Moscow and Russia’s involvement in the election.
Mr. Comey’s testimony confirmed, for the first time, that intelligence agents are investigating whether such a connection exists – and if anyone broke the law.
“The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission is … investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any co-ordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” he said.
The director would not say whether the FBI had yet found any evidence of this, citing the continuing investigation. But he did provide details on Russia’s push to influence the vote.
As the campaign went on, he said, the Russians became convinced Ms. Clinton was going to win, but kept releasing embarrassing e-mails in a bid to undermine what they believed would be the next U.S. administration.
In addition to hacking the Democratic Party, Mr. Comey said, the Russians also tried to get access to voter rolls and registration information. And he said Moscow was “unusually loud” in its efforts – making it relatively easy for the FBI to find out what it was doing. Mr. Comey speculated this was calculated to “freak people out” and shake their faith in the election.
Mr. Rogers said the size of the hack was unprecedented: “We never saw in previous presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed both from private individuals as well as organizations associated with the democratic process.”
The Democrats on the intelligence committee also used the hearing to get Mr. Comey to shoot down Mr. Trump’s accusations against Mr. Obama. The President tweeted earlier this month that his predecessor had wire-tapped Trump Tower during the election. Representative Adam Schiff read a series of Mr. Trump’s tweets into the record and asked if the accusation was true. Mr. Comey said there was no evidence it was.
The Republicans, for their part, took aim at the leaks that have permeated the country’s national security apparatus. Both the imbroglios over Mr. Flynn and Mr. Sessions originated from newspaper reports based on revelations of secret information by government officials.
Mr. Trump fired Mr. Flynn in February after reporters revealed he had discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States – contrary to his assertions the topic had not come up. Mr. Sessions, for his part, met with the ambassador during the election campaign but failed to disclose the sit-down when asked by the Senate.
Mr. Comey confirmed that leaking classified information is “a serious crime” and appears to have been happening at an unusual rate over the past two months.
Representative Trey Gowdy suggested the leaks were unfair to Mr. Flynn, that they may have been orchestrated by former Obama administration officials and that Congress might rein in intelligence organizations if they cannot run a tighter ship.
“The American people give certain powers to government to keep us safe. And when those powers are misused and the motive is not criminal investigations or national security, then I’ll bet you my fellow citizens are rethinking their side of the equation,” he said.
Mr. Comey also had a warning of his own for the committee. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the country has not seen the last of the long arm of the Kremlin.
“One of the lessons [Russian officials] may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sowed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process,” he said.
WASHINGTON — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 9:10AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2017 12:07AM EDT
For further reading, view lesson plan: A guide to the ongoing saga involving Trump, his inner circle and Russia