WASHINGTON — The two Californians who lead their parties on the House Intelligence Committee framed starkly different interpretations of FBI Director James Comey’s blockbuster announcement Monday that his agency is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s government.
Comey’s revelation marked the first time the agency had publicly confirmed not just the existence of a probe, but whether then-candidate Donald Trump’s aides were connected to what Russian officials were allegedly doing. He gave no details whom the probe’s targets were and offered no timeline for how long the investigation would take.
At the very least, the inquiry will be a distraction for President Trump when he is trying to push major initiatives through Congress, including a new health-coverage strategy, huge cuts in discretionary domestic spending and increases in the Pentagon’s budget, and construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. The worst-case scenario for Trump is far more dire: the prospect that campaign associates will be implicated in a scheme engineered by Moscow to help get him elected.
In the waning days of Obama’s administration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said U.S. spy agencies had concluded with “high confidence” that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” that included hacking Democratic officials’ emails. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was placed on the defensive for weeks as the emails were leaked.
As secretary of state, Clinton said Russian elections in 2011 had been “neither free nor fair,” something Putin took as an attack on him. Comey testified Monday that it was an easy call for intelligence officials to deduct that Putin “hated Clinton so much” that he clearly wanted Trump to win.
Republicans’ effort to minimize the potential damage to Trump was led by committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare. The San Joaquin Valley native is in his eighth term in Congress but became a national figure only this year, when he assumed the chairmanship of the intelligence panel after serving on Trump’s transition team.
“I can tell you we don’t have any evidence,” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Nunes told Comey. “That would be something we really should know about and know about quickly. There’s a big gray cloud you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country.”
Nunes alleged that the Obama administration had failed to take Russian cyberattacks seriously before intelligence officials concluded that they were aimed at damaging the Democratic presidential nominee. He pressed Comey on illegal leaks from intelligence agencies to the media, and got the FBI director to say that there was no evidence that Russian officials had tampered directly with balloting machines in swing states.
Nunes also asked Comey whether he would investigate Clinton if any evidence emerged of Russian ties to her campaign.
Trump reacted in a similar vein, responding to the hearing with a series of tweets, bringing up Clinton and insisting, “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”
Nunes acknowledged that Trump’s wiretapping claim appears to be unfounded, but he raised the possibility that “other surveillance tactics” had been used against the then-Republican nominee. At a later briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer refused to withdraw the wiretapping allegation.
Comey, who was named FBI director by former President Barack Obama, declined to comment when Republicans pressed him on whether he had evidence that people leaking information had committed wrongdoing. But he did confirm their assertions that some media reports on the issue have been incorrect and that the leaking is illegal. Republicans argued that anonymous leaks from the intelligence bureaucracy are a threat to democracy.
Democratic panel members, given a rare opportunity in the spotlight in a Republican-dominated Congress, were led by Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank. Like Nunes, he has emerged since January from near obscurity to become a leading spokesman for his party, thanks to the Russia probe. As the panel’s top Democrat, Schiff used a 15-minute opening statement to construct a circumstantial case against Trump associates.
These included the Russian ties and allegedly suspicious actions of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort; former Trump political adviser Roger Stone; Michael Flynn, who resigned as the president’s national security adviser over lying about meetings with Russian officials; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from any Russia issues after he failed to disclose a private meeting with the Russian ambassador. All have denied doing anything wrong.
“Is it possible that all these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Schiff asked. He said it is instead “more than possible ... that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere.”
Two Bay Area Democrats on the panel, Reps. Jackie Speier of Hillsborough and Eric Swalwell of Dublin, followed a similar line. Speier homed in on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his former role as chief executive of ExxonMobil, accusing him of cozying up to Igor Sechin, an alleged former agent of the KGB who is close to Putin.
Speier accused Russia of using a form of “hybrid warfare” to undermine the U.S. government. Comey declined to use the term warfare, but said Russia is “engaged in a multifaceted campaign of active measures to undermine our democracy, to hurt one of the candidates and hope to help one of the other candidates.”
Swalwell recited Comey’s admonition that anyone who lies should never be believed again, referring the FBI director to his own finding that there is no apparent evidence for Trump’s wiretapping claim and implying that the president, by Comey’s own rule, should not be believed. Swalwell said in a television interview that the committee should leave open the possibility of subpoenaing Trump and his tax returns.
Comey’s new role is a striking turn from a few months ago. Less than two weeks before the election, his announcement that the FBI might reopen its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state sent her poll numbers tumbling. Comey then said a few days later that there was no reason to reopen the probe, but Clinton campaign officials blamed him for tipping the election.
Now it is Republicans who are asking why Comey has gone public with an investigation against the Trump campaign.
“Our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters, but in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so as Justice Department policies recognize,” Comey said. “This is one of those circumstances.”
Comey said he received authorization from the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the investigation “as part of our counterintelligence mission,” and that it “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 counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @carolynlochhead