FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers are seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
By Eric Tucker and Eileen Sullivan / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating whether President Donald Trump’s associates coordinated with Russian officials in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election, Director James Comey said Monday in what was viewed as an extraordinary public confirmation of a probe the president has refused to acknowledge, dismissed as fake news and blamed on Democrats.
In a five-hour session, the FBI director also knocked down Mr. Trump’s claim that his predecessor had wiretapped his New York skyscraper, an assertion that has distracted White House officials and frustrated fellow Republicans who acknowledge they’ve seen no evidence to support it. Mr. Comey became the most senior U.S. law enforcement official to publicly debunk Mr. Trump’s wiretapping charges.
The revelation of the investigation of possible collusion with Russians, and the first public confirmation of the wider probe that began last summer, came in a hearing by one branch of government examining serious allegations against another branch and the new president’s election campaign.
Tight-lipped for the most part, Mr. Comey refused to offer details on the scope, targets or timeline for the FBI investigation, which could shadow the White House for months, if not years. The director would not say whether the probe has turned up evidence that Trump associates may have schemed with Russians during a campaign marked by email hacking that investigators believe was aimed at helping the Republican defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I can promise you,” the FBI director vowed, “we will follow the facts wherever they lead … no matter how long that takes.”
Federal investigators also are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.
Mr. Comey for the first time put himself publicly at odds with the president by contradicting a series of recent tweets from Mr. Trump that asserted his phones had been ordered tapped by then-President Barack Obama during the campaign.
“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Mr. Comey said. The same was true, he added, of the Justice Department.
His confirmation of the Russia-links investigation was viewed as striking given the FBI’s historic reluctance to discuss its work. But Mr. Comey said the intense public interest in the matter — and permission from the Justice Department — made it appropriate to do so.
Mr. Comey said the collusion inquiry began last July as part of a broader probe into Russian meddling in American politics, meaning Mr. Trump was elected president as associates remained under investigation for possible connections to Russia.
Clinton allies on Monday contrasted Mr. Comey’s silence during the campaign with public comments he made last year when closing out an investigation into Ms. Clinton’s email practices and then, shortly before Election Day, announcing that the probe would be revived following the discovery of additional emails. Many Democrats blame Mr. Comey’s public updates with stoking worries about Ms. Clinton’s trustworthiness and turning voters against her.
Mr. Comey acknowledged that “some folks may want to make comparisons to past instances” where he and other officials were more open, but he said those were about concluded investigations.
In the current case, it’s not clear how long it will take for the FBI to decide if a crime was committed, but counterintelligence investigations are known for being complicated and time-intensive — and for frequently concluding without charges. Mr. Comey would not commit to a timetable.
Regardless of the outcome, the investigation is viewed as an unwelcome distraction for an administration that has struggled to move past questions about ties to Russia. The White House described some of the people reportedly being investigated for possible links to Russia as “hangers-on around the campaign,” and tried anew Monday to distance itself from two former senior members of Mr. Trump’s team, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who have been under scrutiny for foreign contacts.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued Monday to defend Mr. Trump’s claims that Mr. Obama ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the presidential election campaign.
“We are still at the beginning phase of a look as to what kind of surveillance took place and why,” Mr. Spicer told reporters at his daily briefing at the White House.
He also said pushed back against the revelation that the FBI is investigating potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government: “Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things.”
In one particularly eyebrow-raising moment, Mr. Spicer claimed that Mr. Manafort had a “very limited role” in the 2016 election. In fact, Mr. Manafort was hired in March as Mr. Trump’s convention manager and promoted to campaign chairman in May. (Mr. Manafort also made news after the release of documents Monday that reportedly showed that he took steps to hide payments tied to his work for former Ukriane President Viktor Yanukovych) Mr. Spicer also described foreign policy adviser Mr. Flynn as simply a “volunteer.” Mr. Flynn traveled frequently with the president, delivered a high-profile speech at the Republican National Convention and served as his first national security adviser.
Both Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn were fired by Mr. Trump after revelations about their connections to Russia.
The Senate intelligence committee has also asked Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, and Carter Page, an investment banker who briefly advised the campaign on foreign policy, to retain documents related to its inquiry.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the committee, told Mr. Comey that revelations about the investigation had placed a “big gray cloud” over people trying to lead the country.
“The faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” he said.
The hearing quickly divided along partisan lines, Democrats pressing for details on the status of the FBI’s investigation while Republicans focused on news coverage and possible improper disclosures of classified information developed through surveillance.
Mr. Comey is the latest government official to reject Mr. Trump’s claims, made without any evidence, that Mr. Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, his campaign headquarters. Mr. Nunes rejected them earlier in the hearing.
Mr. Comey testified along with Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, who also disputed allegations that British intelligence services could have been involved in such wiretapping. The White House last week pointed to a report of British involvement in an attempt to bolster the president’s claim. The move only angered an ally.
Mr. Trump took to Twitter before Monday’s hearing began, accusing Democrats of making up allegations about his campaign associates. He said Congress and the FBI should be going after media leaks and maybe even Ms. Clinton instead.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” Mr. Trump tweeted early Monday as news coverage on the Russia allegations dominated the morning’s cable news.
Indeed, Mr. Comey also demanded a focus on leaks to news organizations.
The president continued to tweet throughout the hearing, creating what was seen as an unusual public conversation between the embattled president and his FBI director.
After Mr. Trump tweeted that the FBI and NSA had told Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process, Mr. Comey disputed that description. The FBI has offered no opinion and has no view and no information on the potential impact on the election because that’s not something the bureau has looked at, he said.
The president also claimed that Mr. Comey had said there was no evidence of collusion between his aides and Russia, though Mr. Comey said no such thing.
Mr. Trump also suggested, without evidence, that Ms. Clinton’s campaign was in contact with Russia and had possibly thwarted a federal investigation. U.S. intelligence officials have not publicly raised the possibility of contacts between the Clintons and Moscow. Officials have said they believe Moscow had hacked into Democrats’ computers in a bid to help Mr. Trump’s election bid.
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, outlined a chronology that he said suggested frequent and troubling contacts between Trump associates — including Mr. Mr. Page, Mr. Manafort, Mr. Stone, Mr. Flynn, and also J.D. Gordon and Walid Phares — and Russian intermediaries.
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than a entirely unhappy coincidence?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”
The president’s political position was already shaky heading into Monday’s hearing, the first of several public sessions the House and Senate intelligence committees are expected to hold. His approval rating has tumbled to 39 percent, according to a new Gallup poll, down 6 points from a week earlier.
The Washington Post, Tribune News Service, The New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers contributed.