WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey said there is no evidence to support President Donald Trump's allegations that the Obama administration "wiretapped" Trump Tower last year, moments after confirming the bureau is probing potential ties between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign.
"I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI," Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on Monday (March 20).
At the hearing, Comey also said the the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is conducting a broad investigation into Moscow's efforts to "interfere" in the presidential election.
"I have been authorised 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 and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."
Comey cautioned he would not be able to discuss many details of what remains a classified probe. Given the high public interest in the outcome of the inquiry, he told members of the committee that he will pursue the investigation "wherever it may lead."
Comey addressed the panel alongside the head of the National Security Agency as leaders of the Intelligence Committee debunked Trump's claim that his predecessor listened in on his communications.
Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said "the fact that Russia hacked U.S. election-related databases comes as no shock to this committee." He also went on reject the president's claims that the Obama administration "wiretapped" Trump Tower last year, saying, "Let me be clear: we know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower."
His Democratic colleague, Adam Schiff of California, said there was "no crime" in Trump or his aides having legitimate connections with Russian interests. But he added, "If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history."
Nunes said Monday's public hearing, with Comey and NSA chief Admiral Michael Rogers, will focus on Russia's actions, whether campaign officials or other U.S. citizens were improperly monitored and who was responsible for leaks of sensitive information.
Looming over the hearing was the case of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was fired last month for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the content of phone calls with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, a few weeks before Trump's inauguration. Media reports at the time, based on anonymous sources, said the subject of U.S. sanctions against Russia was discussed.
Later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian probes after acknowledging that he met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Trump supporters including Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and energy consultant Carter Page have denied any improprieties in their contacts with Russian officials or intermediaries. Documents released last week by congressional Democrats show Flynn received more than US$45,000 (S$62,860) from RT, the Russian government-backed television network, for his participation at a December 2015 gala where he sat at President Vladimir Putin's table.
Trump preemptively weighed in on the proceedings, saying it was a political attack meant to undermine his administration.
"James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS," Trump tweeted on Monday morning, using an acronym for President of the United States and referring to the former director of national intelligence. "The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!"
Trump didn't address the wiretapping claim on Monday. He alleged in a March 4 tweet that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped, a claim denied by Obama administration officials. In a statement last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders said there had been no proof that Trump Tower was a target of surveillance and the Trump administration has not produced any evidence backing up the claim.
Schiff said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that a classified dossier from the Justice Department delivered on Friday showed "no evidence to support the president's claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor" so "I hope we can put an end to this wild goose chase, because what the president said was patently false."
Trump said Congress instead should be investigating leaks that have harmed his young administration.
"The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information," the president said in a Twitter post on Monday. "Must find leaker now!" BLOOMBERG