Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Intelligence Committee hearing possibly rivals Watergate in historic significance

In the opening hearing of the House Intelligence Committee investigation of the connections between associates of Donald Trump and the Russians during the campaign, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence Agency Admiral Michael Rogers testified.    Comey began his testimony with this statement:

"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.  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."

Here are some high points of the day:

1.  Comey affirmed that an investigation of the Russians' attempt to influence the 2016 election has been underway since last July.   The investigation will include whether there is evidence of collusion with the Russians by the Trump associates.  He had already released the FBI's conclusions that the Russians did the hacking and that their use of materials found on the computers of the DNC and Clinton's campaign chief John Podesta did have an influence on the election.

2.  Comey said that the FBI had no evidence to support Trump's claim that President Obama "tapped his wires," nor was there any evidence found in a thorough search at the FBI that anyone had put Trump and his campaign under surveillance of any kind.   Adm. Rogers, a Trump appointee as DNI, affirmed the same about the NSA having no evidence of that.  (That is, Trump lied, although Comey did not use that word.)

3,  Comey also testified, as did Adm. Rogers, that they have no evidence that Obama had gotten the British intelligence agencies to do the tapping for him.   The British had already responded with indignation that such a charge would be made by our president, because it is antithetical to agreements we have with this close ally.   If Trump had a boss who could fire him, he would have been gone before this.  But only the American people can do that through impeachment.    We may get there.

4.  In answer to a question of whether Trump was correct when he tweeted that Comey had found that Russians did not interfere with the vote in our election, Comey said that is not what he said and is not correct.  He clarified that their investigation did not include monitoring the actual election.  (In blunter terms, Trump lied, again.   Actually, I'm not sure this one is a lie.   It's possible that he simply does not understand the difference between "investigated and found no evidence" and "simply wasn't what we investigated so we can't say whether they did or not."  We need to lower expectations of this man's ability to get even pretty obvious nuance.)

5.  The Republicans on the committee focused almost exclusively on questions about the leakers rather than the evidence that was leaked.   One might even say that -- as the majority of the members of the Intelligence Committee charged with investigating this matter -- they are participating in the cover-up by showing so little concern about the Russians' role in this, as well as the possible criminal activity of the president's associates.

6.  This whole thing is extraordinary -- and historically unprecedented.   We have the president's campaign associates, some of his White House staff, and possibly even the president himself under an FBI criminal investigation that conceivably could result in criminal charges of treason.

7.  Consider this:  Back during the transition, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sat in on the CIA security briefings with then President-Elect Trump.   Now we know that he was under investigation at the time for possible collusion with the Russians.  At the time, we heard that Flynn was so aggressive in questioning the briefing officials that Chris Christie, who was also present, tried to calm him down.   As a retired general and former head of National Intelligence, perhaps Flynn knew they were withholding information because of his presence.   Maybe the CIA already knew enough about his contact with the Russians to doubt his loyalty.

8.   John Dean was the Richard Nixon White House Counsel who resigned and became a cooperative witness during the Watergate investigation.   Chris Hayes interviewed him about the current situation, which many are saying could be worse than Watergate.    He made the important point that this is still early in the investigation, but he said that the Trump administration is in "cover-up mode,"   Here's more from Dean:

"I've been inside a cover-up. [before he resigned as Nixon's counsel]  I know how they look and feel.   And every signal they're sending is:  'we're covering this thing up.'  Experienced investigators know this.   They know how people react when they're being pursued, and this White House is not showing their innocence, they're showing how damn guilty they are.  That's what we're seeing."

Dean continued, drawing the parallels from Watergate as to how the administration tries to distance itself from those shown to have been involved -- just as they're now doing -- trying to say that Paul Manafort had a "very limited" role for a short time (he was campaign manager for five months, including the RNC convention) and that Mike Flynn was "just a volunteer."   Dean called this "classic cover-up."

10.  Ranking Intelligence Committee member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ended his opening statement by asking rhetorically if all the numerous Trump associates with Russian connections, plus the obvious favorable attitude toward Putin and Russia displayed by Trump himself, while he insults our allies and NATO -- whether all this could simply be the result of coincidence.   His answer was: yes, it could be.    But, he added, "it is also possible, maybe even more than possible, that it is not coincidence.   We do not know the answer . . . yet.   But we need to find out."

11.   If Schiff was running the committee, rather than the ranking member of the opposing party, I would be satisfied.   But I do not trust the Republican majority to do a thorough investigation of a  Russian  Republican administration.  (That was an actual, unconscious slip, by the way.)  Their trying to shift the focus to the leakers, rather than the possible treason being exposed, is proof that we must have a high level, independent, bipartisan commission.


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