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FBI’s Trump-Russia probe knocks White House on its heels

Trump’s team scrambles to contain fallout as Comey confirms investigation and debunks wiretapping claim.


The White House was knocked on the defensive Monday ahead of its biggest week yet on Capitol Hill as FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of an active investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including whether there was any coordination with now-President Donald Trump’s team.

The dramatic revelation, made at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, dragged the Trump administration yet again back into uncomfortable territory just as it had hoped to highlight the smooth rollout of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who began his confirmation hearings across the Capitol on Monday.

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In another blow to Trump, Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers also publicly refuted his unsubstantiated claims on Twitter that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower phones. The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had said last week that Trump’s allegations were untrue.

“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said.

The White House scrambled to contain the fallout, deploying two simultaneous war rooms, according to two people familiar with the arrangement, one in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to monitor the Comey hearing and another in the Senate offices to keep tabs on Gorsuch.


But any hopes in the West Wing for a split-screen day were dashed with the revelation of an active probe into campaign associates of the president. At the White House, televisions in the press offices played the Comey hearing as it ran live on all the cable networks.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said. “And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Comey said the probe will “include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

Comey himself tried not to overstate the investigation, and he drew laughter when pushed on whether talk of Trump’s ties to Russia was a form of “McCarthyism.”

“I try very hard not to engage in any ‘isms’ of any kind, including McCarthyism,” he said.

He also revealed that the FBI launched its investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials back in July — a detail that enraged allies of Hillary Clinton, considering Comey chose to confirm the existence of the probe into her email arrangement but not the one into Trump’s campaign.

The White House tried to downplay Comey’s testimony, as press secretary Sean Spicer was peppered with questions during the briefing.


He repeatedly tried to cast former national security adviser Michael Flynn as the victim of illegal leaks, seeking to point reporters’ focus to the circumstances around which Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador were revealed. It was a tactic followed by Republicans on Capitol Hill, who mostly ignored Russian interference in the election and opted to focus on leaks to the press.

Spicer also expressed confidence that the FBI investigation would reveal no wrongdoing.

“As has been previously reported, Director Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating Russia’s role in interfering with the election,” Spicer said. “Following this testimony, it’s clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so, Obama’s director of national intelligence said so, and we take them at their word.”

Spicer said reporters needed to take “no” for an answer about collusion, and he said more attention should be paid to other issues, like leakers and any contact between Clinton’s campaign and Russia. He also sought to minimize the role in the campaign of some people who have been linked to Russia or WikiLeaks, including former campaign adviser Carter Page, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone and former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.

Manafort played a “limited role” in the campaign, Spicer said, despite the fact that Manafort managed the campaign as chairman throughout much of the summer and through the Republican National Convention. Spicer said he is not aware of anyone currently serving in the White House who is a subject of the FBI investigation.

In addition to Gorsuch’s confirmation, the House is pushing for a floor vote Thursday on the plan of Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House to repeal and replace Obamacare. There was some hope that the focus on Comey and Gorsuch could allow House whips and Trump vote-counters a chance to round up support for the bill without the full glare of the media, but one senior White House aide dismissed the idea.

“I don’t think I’m clever enough to figure out how to use the Comey hearing to get votes for health care,” the official said.

Trump’s war room teams, meanwhile, offered a preview of what is likely to come as they cherry-picked elements from Comey and Rogers to make it seem as if Russia hadn’t meddled in the election.

“The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” Trump tweeted with a clip of the testimony from the official @POTUS account.

That is not accurate, or, at the least, is misleading. Comey and Rogers testified that Russia had not altered vote tallies, though they acknowledged they could not judge whether the Russian efforts had any influence on voters.

Trump himself began the pushback before the hearings even began, with a burst of morning tweets attacking the media, Clinton, polls and the Democratic Party. “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” Trump tweeted.

Republicans on the Hill followed that lead, aggressively questioning how classified information had leaked while giving lighter treatment to the existence of the FBI investigation and its implications for the president.

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