Wednesday was a whirlwind day for lawmakers investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
FBI Director James Comey briefed leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The heads of the House Intelligence Committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify publicly before their panel. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) held a hearing in which he pleaded with the FBI to stop stonewalling Congress.
Here are five things we learned:
Lawmakers are zeroing in on two questions
Congress is determined to get answers from the Justice Department on two major questions and they’re making clear they’re willing to play hardball if they don’t hear something soon.
First, lawmakers in both chambers are demanding that the FBI clear up President Donald Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the run-up to the election. Both the House Intelligence Committee and Graham’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism have asked the Justice Department to turn over any evidence for Trump’s allegations, including warrant applications or court orders.
And both panels are using their leverage to ensure they get what they want, raising the prospect of issuing subpoenas.
The House panel has given the Justice Department until Monday to answer its questions “and may resort to a compulsory process if our questions continue to go unanswered,” according to spokesman Jack Langer. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), meanwhile, has said his committee will not hold a vote on Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general until he gets more information from the FBI.
The other big question for lawmakers is whether the FBI is conducting any criminal investigations into Trump campaign aides for potential collusion with Russia.
Graham said at the top of his subcommittee hearing Wednesday that the FBI still had not responded to his questions on this issue, and that he thinks the public deserves unclassified answers.
“We gave the director until today to answer the question,” Graham said. “I still don’t have answers to those questions.”
Comey can’t keep dodging forever
The FBI director has so far avoided publicly commenting on the possibility of criminal investigations into Trump associates or on Trump’s wiretapping claims, despite reports that he wanted the Justice Department to issue a disavowal of Trump’s jaw-dropping tweets.
But Comey’s moment is coming.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced at their news conference that Comey would appear before their panel at a public hearing next Monday.
This will make for great TV, as Comey is almost certain to be goaded by Democrats into denouncing Trump’s claim. One way or another, he is almost certain to anger either the president or key members of Congress.
Trump doesn’t appear to have the goods on wiretapping
Key Republicans on Capitol Hill are signaling that the evidence just isn’t there to back up Trump’s wiretapping claims.
Nunes, a staunch Trump ally during the presidential campaign, told reporters Wednesday, “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
“Are you going to take the tweets literally?” added Nunes, who was briefed by Comey behind closed doors last week. “If you are, then clearly the president was wrong.”
Even the White House has backed off a bit, with press secretary Sean Spicer saying earlier this week that Trump “doesn’t really think” that Obama “tapped his phone personally.”
With both the House and the Senate demanding information on Trump’s claims, it appears the president might soon have to face the possibility of his own executive branch providing documents to Congress that prove him wrong.
Incidental collection is key
While Nunes cast doubt on Trump’s wiretapping claim, he made clear he is concerned that Trump aides could have been under inadvertent surveillance.
This is called incidental collection, and it can occur when people in the United States communicate with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance or even when they chat about an overseas suspect. The identities of Americans whose communications are inadvertently collected are normally kept secret, though they can be “unmasked” under certain circumstances for foreign intelligence purposes.
Nunes said Wednesday he is worried this unmasking process has been abused, citing news media reports that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had pre-inauguration phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
“I am quite confident that it is illegal to leak [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] collected names of Americans,” Nunes said, calling this one of the only crimes about which he has evidence so far. “It’s also illegal to leak any additional classified information.”
He and Schiff sent a letter Wednesday to the intelligence community asking that it turn over any details about possible incidental collection on anyone associated with the Trump or Hillary Clinton campaigns.
Access is still an issue
Nunes signaled last week his committee had reached an agreement with the intelligence community over which types of information would be turned over to Congress and which types of information lawmakers could view only if they trekked out to secure facilities at the agencies.
But the congressman indicated Wednesday his access issues are not over, singling out the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We are a little uncomfortable with the ODNI and whether or not they’re going to let us have the proper computer technology that we need to go through the evidence that exists out at the CIA, out at Langley,” he said. “We are trying to work through that, but I can tell you that it has become a bit of a stumbling block for our investigators to actually be able to compile and cull through the information.”
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have also complained about access to information from the intelligence agencies as part of their investigation.
Cory Bennett and Martin Matishak contributed to this report.