FBI mum on possible probe of Trump-Russia ties as lawmakers press sanctions, blackmail threat alleged


FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday refused to say whether his bureau was investigating any possible ties between Russia and the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, citing policy not to comment on what the FBI might or might not be doing.

Comey testified at the Senate’s second hearing in a week addressing allegations of Russian election hacking. In late October he angered Democrats when he announced 11 days before the election that the FBI was looking at more emails as part of its investigation of Hillary Clinton.

“I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum like this so I can’t answer one way or another,” Comey told the Senate’s intelligence committee during his first public appearance before Congress since the unusual disclosure about Clinton.

“The irony of your making that statement, I cannot avoid,” said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent.

Insisted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., “The American people have the right to know this.”

It wasn’t clear if Wyden was alluding to an investigation that may be classified, or if his questioning was an effort to cast Trump in a negative light shortly before the inauguration.

Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote two letters to the FBI last year before the election, asking the bureau to publicly disclose what it knew about Trump’s aides’ ties to Russia.

An active FBI investigation of the next president for ties between his campaign and a nation accused of meddling in the presidential election could further stoke mistrust in the legitimacy of the democratic process. It could also put Trump’s own FBI in the awkward position of examining the conduct of those closest to the commander-in-chief.

The FBI was among three U.S. intelligence agencies that collaborated on last week’s report on Russia’s election activity. It tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to the hacking of email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. It said there was no evidence the Russians tampered with vote tallies; the agencies said they couldn’t assess if Russia succeeded in influencing Americans to vote for Trump.

Intelligence officials briefed Trump and President Barack Obama on their findings late last week. The New York Times and CNN reported Tuesday night that the officials also presented Trump with unsubstantiated reports that Russia had compromising personal and financial information about him.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who opposed Trump in the GOP primary, said Russia’s activity wasn’t guided by its support for Trump, but rather “to influence and to potentially manipulate American public opinion for the purpose of discrediting individual political figures, sowing chaos and division in our politics, sowing doubts about the legitimacy of our elections.”

Democrats at the committee hearing focused their toughest questions on Comey, who was widely criticized for breaking FBI policy in his decision to notify Congress about additional information that came up related to Clinton. He is in the fourth year of a 10-year term, meaning he is expected to stay on in the Trump administration.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Comey set a new standard by discussing the bureau’s activity related to Clinton’s private email server. That standard, she said, is the FBI discusses ongoing investigations when there is a “unique public interest in the transparency of that issue.”

The intelligence agencies’ findings on Russian hacking fit that standard, she argued.

“I’m not sure I can think of an issue of more serious public interest than this one,” Harris said. “This committee needs to understand what the FBI does and does not know about campaign communications with Russia.”

Sitting beside Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “Fair point.”

Senate Republicans and Democrats meanwhile joined forces Tuesday to directly challenge Trump over Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and for ongoing aggression in other parts of the world.

The 10 lawmakers, five from each party, introduced sweeping legislation designed to go beyond the punishments against Russia already levied by the Obama administration and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow’s meddling isn’t a partisan issue.

“We should all be alarmed by Russian attacks on our nation,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He chided President Barack Obama for not taking more aggressive steps against Russian cyberattacks that have grown bolder over the years.

“This appearance of weakness has been provocative to our adversaries,” McCain said.

U.S. intelligence officials released a declassified report Friday that said Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump become president. The report concluded Russian President Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to undercut public faith in the U.S. political process and to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

But Trump, who has said he wants better relations with Moscow, rejected the implication that Russian hacking of Democratic emails tipped the election his way. He also derided U.S. intelligence agencies on Twitter, bringing up past failures, specifically intelligence assessments about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the lead-up to the war there.

Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide to Trump, has suggested Trump may roll back the sanctions against Russia.

Obama in late December ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. The new penalties add to existing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which have damaged Russia’s economy but had only limited impact on Putin’s behavior.

To help persuade Russia to back off, the new bill would impose mandatory visa bans and freeze the financial assets of anyone who carries out cyberattacks against public or private computer systems and democratic institutions.

The legislation also mandates sanctions in Russia’s all-important energy sector and on investments in the development of civil nuclear projects to rebuke Moscow for its provocations in eastern Ukraine and military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The bipartisan bill also would form a top-level unit within the Treasury Department’s financial crimes offices to target illicit money trails linked to the Russian Federation.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the bill’s authors, said he expects members to grill the nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, at his confirmation hearing Wednesday on whether he believes more and tougher sanctions against Russia are needed.

As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson opposed the sanctions levied on Moscow following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The penalties cost the energy giant hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I think you’re going to find that there’s going to be a great deal of interest as to whether Mr. Tillerson understands that he is no longer going to be CEO of ExxonMobil but that he’s going to be secretary of state, the nation’s top diplomat,” Cardin told reporters.

In addition to Cardin and McCain, the senators sponsoring the Countering Russian Hostilities Act are Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Ben Sasse, R-Neb.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.