FBI’s Comey confirms investigation into Team Trump’s Russia ties

 msnbc.com  3/20/2017 4:23:52 PM   Steve Benen
There’s been some debate about whether Donald Trump’s campaign operation is under a federal investigation or not. This morning, FBI Director James Comey ended that debate.
The FBI is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election, FBI Director James Comey told Congress Monday, an explosive disclosure that could shadow the Trump presidency.

In his opening statement at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey said the investigation was being undertaken “as part of our counterintelligence mission,” and that he could not disclose any details about it. Normally, he said, the FBI doesn’t confirm or deny investigations, but it can make exceptions in cases of major public interest.
Specifically, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee, during its open hearing, that he’s been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that “the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. 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. As with any counter-intelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment or whether any crimes were committed.”

At a certain level, I can appreciate why this news is consistent with expectations – because the political world has been discussing for months reports of precisely this kind of counter-intelligence investigation. Political observers have invested considerable energy into exploring the allegations – and the implications of the allegations – surrounding Russia’s espionage operation to help elect Trump, and the possibility of people close to Trump playing some cooperative role in Moscow’s efforts.

But before this morning, there were limits on what we knew for certain about the nature of probe. It’s what makes Comey’s acknowledgement so extraordinary: a president’s campaign is under an FBI investigation. In a development so stunning, it’s strange to even put in writing, federal investigators are exploring whether members of the president’s campaign team cooperated with a foreign adversary’s illegal scheme to influence the outcome of an American election.

This is not, in other words, just another day for American politics.

Comey also confirmed this morning that the FBI investigation began in late July. It’s worth noting for context that it was on July 27 that Trump held a press conference in which he publicly urged Vladimir Putin’s espionage services to help sabotage the Clinton campaign and help put Trump in the White House.

Why voters were made aware of the FBI’s interest in Hillary Clinton’s email server and not the FBI’s interest in Team Trump’s Russia ties is a question that does not yet have an answer.

As for Trump’s recent insistence that President Obama illegally wiretapped phones at Trump Tower before the election, the FBI director did nothing to bolster those dubious claims.
Later in the hearing, Comey said he “has no information that supports” Trump’s allegation that President Obama ordered surveillance of his communications in Trump Tower during the campaign.

Comey added that courts grant permission for electronic surveillance, “carefully overseen,” and that “no individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone.”
The FBI director didn’t come right out and explicitly say Trump was lying, but it sounded as if Comey has no reason to believe the president’s claims.

That said, it’s the Russia allegations that appear to be the most significant development this morning, and it’s likely Democratic calls for a special, independent counsel will grow quite a bit louder.

Indeed, the Intelligence Committee’s Republican members are effectively making the Democratic arguments for them. For much of the morning’s hearing, GOP members have shown no real interest in Russia’s attack on the American political process, and have instead focused on White House-friendly talking points about leaks. No neutral observer could watch this hearing and have confidence in Republicans handling the matter in a neutral and independent way.

NBC News’ Katy Tur’s point this morning rings true: “So far this hearing is making a good argument for why there needs to be an independent investigation.”
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