White House un­der ‘ big gray cloud’

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION -

Not since WASH­ING­TON Water­gate.

FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey de­liv­ered more than one bomb­shell Mon­day at a rare pub­lic hear­ing of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. He said there was no ev­i­dence to back up Pres­i­dent Trump’s ac­cu­sa­tion that Pres­i­dent Obama wire­tapped Trump Tower dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, join­ing con­gres­sional lead­ers and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in dis­count­ing Trump’s un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims.

What was more ex­plo­sive, though, was Comey’s mat­ter- of- fact con­fir­ma­tion that the FBI is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Trump as­so­ciates col­luded with Rus­sia in the ef­fort by one of the United States’ lead­ing global ad­ver­saries to af­fect the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

To be sure, the FBI in re­cent years has been drawn into in­ves­ti­ga­tions in­volv­ing the White House top ranks, from Scooter Libby’s leak­ing of a CIA op­er­a­tive’s name dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s re­la­tion­ship with Mon­ica Lewin­sky. But not since the Water­gate scan­dal that forced Pres­i­dent Nixon to re­sign more than a half- cen­tury ago has there been an of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion of such po­ten­tial con­se­quence.

The al­le­ga­tions “are more se­ri­ous than any­thing we’ve seen in re­cent decades,” says po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian Matthew Dallek, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and author of De­fense­less Un­der the Night: The Roo­sevelt Years and the Ori­gins of Home­land Se­cu­rity. “That is far from a lone in­stance of an il­le­gal leak or a pres­i­dent fudg­ing the truth un­der oath about sex with a White House in­tern.”

The dis­clo­sure cre­ates com­pli­ca­tions for the Trump Jus­tice Depart­ment in over­see­ing the in­quiry and is sure to fuel Demo­cratic ar­gu­ments that an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel needs to be named. Though Comey de­clined to out­line a timetable for the FBI in­quiry, ques­tions about whether some in the Trump team co­or­di­nated with Moscow’s med­dling are all but cer­tain to hang over the ad­min­is­tra­tion for months or even years.

Just ask vet­er­ans of the Iran- con­tra in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the Rea­gan White House or of the Mon­ica Lewin­sky in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the Clin­ton White House the sort of shadow they can cast.

Comey promised that the FBI would “fol­low the facts wher­ever they lead”— in­clud­ing whether crimes were com­mit­ted. Be­cause of ex­tra­or­di­nary pub­lic in­ter­est, he said, the Jus­tice Depart­ment had au­tho­rized him to take the un­usual step of com­ment­ing on an ac­tive coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“If the Trump cam­paign, or any­body as­so­ci­ated with it, aided or abet­ted the Rus­sians, it would not only be a se­ri­ous crime,” Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Adam Schiff, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the panel, said in his open­ing state­ment. “It would also rep­re­sent one of the most shock­ing be­tray­als of our democ­racy in his­tory.”

After more than five hours of tes­ti­mony, In­tel­li­gence Chair­man Devin Nunes, R- Calif., closed the hear­ing with an al­most an­guished plea to Comey to fin­ish the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as soon as pos­si­ble. “The longer this hangs out here, the big­ger the cloud is,” he said. “There is a big gray cloud that you have now put over peo­ple who have very im­por­tant work to do to lead this coun­try.”

The White House dis­missed the whole idea as pre­pos­ter­ous.

“James Clap­per and oth­ers stated that there is no ev­i­dence Po­tus col­luded with Rus­sia,” Trump de­clared in the first of a string of early- morn­ing tweets Mon­day on his per­sonal Twit­ter ac­count, @re­alDon­aldTrump. “This story is FAKE NEWS and ev­ery­one knows it!” He de­clared: “The Democrats made up and pushed the Rus­sian story as an ex­cuse for run­ning a ter­ri­ble cam­paign.”

Then he tweeted: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all oth­ers should be look­ing into is the leak­ing of Clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion. Must find leaker now!”

That was ad­vice Nunes and other Repub­li­cans on the com­mit­tee took, ask­ing more ques­tions about who might have leaked in­for­ma­tion to news or­ga­ni­za­tions than they did about the sub­stance of the in­for­ma­tion that was leaked. They fo­cused in par­tic­u­lar on the dis­clo­sure that a phone call by Trump ad­viser Michael Flynn was cap­tured dur­ing surveil­lance of the Rus­sian am­bas­sador. The law calls for the iden­tity of Amer­i­cans to be masked when they are caught up in for­eign eaves­drop­ping.

“Some of that may rise to the level of a crime,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R- S. C.

There were signs that Trump was watch­ing — and no signs that he was ready to tem­per his rhetoric.

While Comey was tes­ti­fy­ing, there­was a tweet on the of­fi­cial @ PO­TUS Twit­ter ac­count. “FBI Di­rec­tor Comey re­fuses to deny he briefed Pres­i­dent Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Rus­sia,” it said — sug­gest­ing that the for­mer pres­i­dent him­self was be­hind the leak. An­other tweet de­clared, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Rus­sia did not in­flu­ence elec­toral process.”

That wasn’t quite what they said, Comey and Rogers told the panel when the tweet was read to them, in what amounted to an awk­ward fact- check­ing ex­change in real time with their boss. They said they hadn’t drawn con­clu­sions on the im­pact of Moscow’s ef­forts.

Comey did pre­dict that Rus­sia’s ef­forts to dis­rupt Amer­i­can elec­tions weren’t over. “They’ll be back in 2020,” he warned. “They may be back in 2018. And one of the con­clu­sions they may draw ... is they were suc­cess­ful.”

“If the Trump cam­paign ... 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.” Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Adam Schiff

JACK GRU­BER, USA TO­DAY

House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee lead­ers Adam Schiff, left, and Devin Nunes presided overMon­day’s hear­ing.

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