Current and former U.S. intelligence leaders made it clear on Tuesday that they have little interest in helping President Donald Trump escape the scandal surrounding his campaign’s ties to Russia.
During three congressional hearings, the leaders lent new weight to questions about whether Trump’s campaign aides colluded with Russian officials to influence the presidential election — providing yet another setback as the White House seeks a reset during Trump’s foreign trip.
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Former CIA Director John Brennan said U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up contacts between Russia and people involved in Trump’s campaign, and left open the possibility that Russian officials may have been successful in recruiting some of the aides.
Across Capitol Hill, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats declined to comment on a Washington Post report that Trump had asked him to deny evidence of Russia collusion, though Coats left the door open to answering such questions in the future. And National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers did nothing to douse the Post’s allegation that Trump had made a similar request to him — as lawmakers failed to ask him a single question about the issue.
Here are POLITICO’s takeaways from Tuesday’s hearings:
Brennan adds to Trump’s troubles
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee asked Brennan repeatedly whether he had seen evidence of collusion between Trump aides and Moscow — seemingly hoping that Brennan, like former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before him, would say he had not seen direct evidence.
But Brennan took a different tack, saying he had seen contacts between Russia and "U.S. persons" that concerned him, and that these contacts had been passed to the FBI for investigation. This was the most direct acknowledgment yet by a current or former U.S. official that investigators believe Russia sought to recruit Americans to help affect the 2016 election.
The remarks also provided some additional heft to the Russia investigations being conducted by the FBI and House and Senate intelligence committees, which Trump has sought to dismiss as a “witch hunt.”
"I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals," Brennan told lawmakers. "And it raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals."
Republicans get backup on leaks
The Brennan hearing wasn’t all bad news for Trump. The former CIA chief took a hardline stance on government officials who have leaked classified information to the news media, saying the leakers need to be “tracked down.”
"These continue to be very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling,” Brennan said.
During a House Intelligence Committee hearing in March, Republicans took heat for focusing on leaks rather than on Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Republicans appeared cognizant of this criticism on Tuesday, with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) saying he wanted to save his leak questions until the end of the hearing.
After the hearing, the White House issued a statement touting Brennan’s remarks on leaks.
“Even Obama’s CIA director believes the leaks of classified information are ‘appalling’ and the culprits must be ‘tracked down,’" said a White House spokesperson.
Coats willing to talk, just to a different panel
The first question Tuesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing with Coats was about the Post’s report the night before that said Trump had asked him and Rogers to publicly deny evidence of cooperation between his campaign and Russia.
“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president,” Coats responded.
But asked later if he’d be willing to divulge such talks with the Senate Intelligence Committee — which is spearheading the probe into Russia’s election-year meddling and possible ties to Trump’s team — the nation’s top spy changed his tune.
“I do believe that the information and discussions that I’ve had with the president are something that should not be disclosed,” said Coats, who had vowed to cooperate with the inquiries during his confirmation hearing. “On the other hand, if I’m called before an investigative committee, I certainly will provide them with what I know and what I don’t know.”
The former Indiana Republican senator said he had “no documents to make relevant” to the intelligence panels or to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director whom the Justice Department tapped as the special counsel overseeing its Russia investigation.
Senate Democrats look to keep intelligence controversies alive
Armed Services Democrats repeatedly tried to draw Coats into criticizing Trump’s decision to share classified intelligence — possibly from Israel — with senior Russian officials in the Oval Office earlier this month.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other lawmakers asked whether the disclosure would affect intelligence sharing with other U.S. allies.
“I’ve not seen … anything that would lead to that conclusion,” Coats replied.
Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart backed up the claim at the same hearing. That brought a rebuke from Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.): “They’re very worried, general.”
Democrats also latched onto another evasive answer from Coats as evidence that the spy chief was aware of pressure from the president on the intelligence community to disavow the government’s Russia investigation.
While Coats wouldn’t comment broadly on the allegations that Trump tried to stifle the FBI’s investigation, the intelligence leader also wouldn’t actively deny that he had discussed the issue with Rogers.
“That is something that I, um, would like to withhold, that question, at this particular point in time," he said in response to the query from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Panel Democrats took the response as a de facto “yes,” though McCain skewered that interpretation.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also pried out of Coats that the intelligence community has not begun what is often called a “bomb damage assessment” of the ramifications of Trump sharing the secret information with the Russians.
Rogers gets off easy
Comparatively, lawmakers treated Rogers with kid gloves during his testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee.
None of the panel members asked about Trump’s reported requests during the 75-minute session, which dealt with the military’s U.S. Cyber Command budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year. Rogers offered no comments about the accuracy of the Post’s story during his opening statement or in any of his answers.