The White House can no longer afford to ignore as-yet-unproven allegations that Russia and the president’s campaign staff were in cahoots, after the FBI director said his agency is actively investigating the matter.
Spurred by this public revelation, the White House stopped simply dismissing Russian meddling as “fake news”—and started generating some of their own.
The White House and its allies furiously tried to spin a new reality, distancing itself from high-level campaign officials by insisting those individuals were never all that involved in the campaign in the first place.
The response was itself an admittance of just how “real” the story had become.
The House Intelligence Committee’s first open hearing on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was badly split along partisan lines as it opened Monday. Republicans vilified reporters for publishing leaks and made dark insinuations about who leaked to the press; Democrats wildly speculated about which individuals with ties to the Trump campaign could have a link to Moscow.
The guise of non-partisanship in this investigation was all but broken before the hearing began. If you only watched Republicans speak today, or only watched Democratic questions, you would find wildly differing realities. It was like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel.
Rep. Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, finished the job when he went so far as to ask his witnesses, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, whether the Russian government typically prefers Republicans or Democrats. Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy even suggested that reporters who publish secrets should face prosecution.
Democrats mentioned the name of every conceivable Trump associate with ties to Russia. Former political strategist Roger Stone, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Banks, Russian oligarchs, real estate purchases—every suspicion was put into the record. None were confirmed, pushed back by a flurry of “no comments” from the two senior government officials.
But one breathtaking reality was undeniable. In his opening remarks, Comey dropped a bombshell: the FBI was investigating the campaign of a sitting president.
“I have been authorized by the DOJ 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 told a stunned panel. “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. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
Absent the furious typing of the press, and the click-click-click of photographers, the room was silent. Lawmakers looked on with mouths open. It was a momentous moment rarely seen in staid congressional hearings—the room they held the hearing in is usually used for discussion of tax issues.
The testimony of the NSA and FBI director repeatedly challenged the narratives preferred by the president and his White House. There was no evidence from the Justice Department or FBI that supports Trump’s discredited claim—made through tweets—that President Obama had wiretapped him.
“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully within the FBI… the Department [of Justice] has no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said.
And while the White House had suggested that British intelligence spied on Trump on behalf of the U.S., Rogers dismissed this out of hand, agreeing with the British government’s protestation that the notion was “utterly ridiculous.”
The White House tried to pushback in real time, but it did so with a series of false tweets. The @POTUS account claimed that Comey and Rogers said Russia “did not influence [the] electoral process.”
The two officials actually said the opposite: they did not analyze what impact Russia had on the elections, but reaffirmed their conclusion that Russia was trying to influence the campaign, to the detriment of Hillary Clinton and in favor of Trump.
“They wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him,” Comey said.
White House pushback later in the day also relied on factually dubious claims about some of the central figures in the FBI’s investigation.
During an afternoon press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to distance the president from a trio of campaign staffers and advisors who played prominent roles in Democratic speculation about the Trump team’s contact with Russian officials.
Spicer insisted that Manafort, the one-time chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign had only a tangential role on that campaign.
Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time,” Spicer claimed. “Paul was brought on some time in June and by the middle of August he was no longer with the campaign, meaning that for the final stretch of the general election he was not involved.”
The circumstances of Manafort’s departure were more dramatic than Spicer let on, and are integral to ongoing questions about his possible relationship with the Kremlin.
Manafort actually joined the campaign in March 2016, not July as Spicer claimed. He stepped down from the campaign in August due in part to scrutiny over his ties to pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine such as Dmitry Firtash, whom Manafort allegedly helped funnel ill-gotten income into offshore real estate ventures.
Though Manafort resigned from the campaign, The Daily Beast reported in late November that he also advised the Trump transition team on high-level administration staffing decisions.
Among the administration’s most controversial staffing decisions was its appointment of retired Gen. Mike Flynn as White House National Security Advisor. Spicer also attempted to distance the president from Flynn, calling him a “volunteer of the campaign.”
In fact, he was a high-level policy advisor, campaign surrogate, and reported contender for the vice presidential nomination. Federal Election Commission records show the campaign reimbursed Flynn for thousands of dollars in travel expenses.
Flynn eventually become the most short-lived National Security Advisor in U.S. history. He stepped down last month after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose communications during the campaign with the Russian ambassador to Washington regarding U.S. sanctions against the country.
Spicer dismissed another one-time Trump campaign advisor entirely: Carter Page. A Kremlin-friendly pundit and former banker who consulted for state-owned Russian energy company Gazprom, Page was simply a “hanger-on,” Spicer insisted.
“There is a fine line between people who want to be part of something that they’ve never had an official role in and people who played a role in either the campaign or the transition,” Spicer said.
But Page did have a role, according to the president himself. Asked who was advising him on foreign policy in March 2016, Trump mentioned just five names, and “Carter Page, PhD” was one of them.
The FBI investigation on potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia began in the summer of 2016, Comey told the House.
“This investigation began in late July. For a counterintelligence investigation, that’s a fairly short period of time,” he said.
Comey had no timeline on when the investigation will conclude, leaving the White House in turmoil for an indeterminate period.
The House Intelligence Committee meets for another open hearing with national security officials in eight days. After five and a half hours of grilling the witnesses, The Daily Beast asked Nunes, the committee’s Republican chairman whether he learned anything.
“Not much, no,” he said.