House Intelligence Committee: Public Testimony on Russian Interference Day 1

Well, well, well. I just managed to get the settings on this blog configured in time for an incredibly slow news day… 😉

Right. Now that you all have passed the sarcasm test, today was an absurd day in United States politics. It was a split-screen full-day circus, with the House Intelligence Committee beginning their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election and the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning their confirmation hearings for the Honorable Neil Gorsuch, nominee to the United States Supreme Court. If that scheduling feels like a sleight of hand trick, that’s because it most likely is– to say nothing for the vote scheduled on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) later in the week.

While the confirmation hearings for Judge Gorsuch will become incredibly relevant tomorrow and throughout the week, today’s nearly five hours of opening statements were not particularly newsworthy as compared to the concurrent processes in the House Intelligence Committee, so that will be our focus for this evening.

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers sat before the Committee in nearly six hours of testimony covering Russian hacking and interference, intelligence leaks, the Trump campaign and administration, and the President’s inflammatory claim that President Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump tower during his candidacy.

To begin at the end, so to speak, both Comey and Rogers made clear that neither the FBI nor the NSA had uncovered any evidence to suggest that President Obama had ordered any unlawful surveillance of Trump Towers or the then President-elect. James Comey continued, saying he had also been authorized by the Department of Justice to say that none of their offices had any evidence to substantiate the claim either. This conclusive answer to what seemed an obvious question from the start–at least to anyone with even a moderate working knowledge of the rigorous standards that preclude FISA warrants– comes after everyone from Paul Ryan, house majority leader, to Mitch McConnell, senate majority leader, to myriad democrats and republicans alike denying–or at least failing to support–the claim over the past number of days. Thus, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the apparent entirety of the United States Intelligence community all agree that such surveillance did not occur. The only parties who remain unconvinced are those in the White House. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer once again defended the claim today following the testimony of Comey and Rogers on the matter, insisting that there still may be more to the story. Meanwhile, the rest of us are more than ready to close the book on this one– other than to say that the President of the United States using the power of his office to knowingly defame the character of another public figure seems to violate the “faithfully execute the Office of the President” part of the Oath of Office, and certainly qualifies as a civil tort, but ultimately the pursuit of this is nothing more than a distraction in light of the real information presented in Committee today.

The story of the House Intelligent Committee today may as well have been A Tale of Two Cities: on the one hand, Democratic members focused in on the story of Russian interference in the election process and any possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign and administration, while on the other, Republicans focused their lines of questioning on leaks emerging from the intelligence committee. Briefly– leaks are a very real problem, and have the potential to endanger national security if not addressed. That said, Russian interference in our democratic process is a real and already existing threat to National Security, and should be acknowledged as the main priority.

The biggest story of the day happened fairly early on in Committee: James Comey stated unequivocally that Russia “engaged in a multifaceted campaign of active measures to undermine our democracy in order to hurt [Clinton] and help [Trump].” He stopped just short of referring to this multifaceted campaign as an “act of war,” but that did not prevent several democratic representatives from using the phrase. Comey also confirmed that the FBI is “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.” This confirmation came after Comey reiterated that the FBI generally does not comment on ongoing investigations except in “rare circumstances” where it is “in the public interest.” (The irony of this following his willingness to discuss what was already known to be an inconclusive investigation into Huma Abedien’s server days before the election cannot be ignored, but at least he found a shred of consistency.) Later, when pressed by Peter King, (R-NY2) Comey also declined an opportunity to deny that there was existing evidence of collusion–while instructing the Committee and viewers alike not to read into a statement that clearly came with a whole shipping crate full of subtext– and Brad Wenstrup (R-OH2) was able to get him to admit that in order to begin such an investigation into President Trump as the FBI is conducting, there would need to be a “credible allegation” or “reasonable basis” for such a probe.

Finally, to add a shred of humor on top of what was, generally speaking, an incredibly victorious day for the resistance… Donald Trump was, naturally, tweeting about the Committee hearings through his usual “alternative-fact” lens. A few hours into the testimony, the President tweeted from his official @POTUS account:

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Following a recess, Representative Jim Hines (D-CT4) made the brilliant decision to ask Comey and Rogers whether the tweet represented an accurate account of their earlier statements–note that the attached video, while unaltered, is cut off before several significant qualifying statements from the two aforementioned men. They diplomatically, but unequivocally agreed that the tweet was “not quite right,” and clarified that they did not “have any information on the subject [of potential collusion between the Trump administration and Russia].” While I generally find the President’s tweets to be abhorrent, they certainly provided an ample opportunity for some real-time fact checking and message clarification today– something desperately needed in a day and age where every word is twisted into a false and self-aggrandizing narrative designed to benefit the White House.

The real questions now are:

  1. What further information will emerge in classified sessions of the Committee and in the course of this investigation, and what consequences will emerge from such information?
  2. Should the government continue with business as usual, including the confirmation hearings for Judge Gorsuch, in the face of testimony that the President of the United States and his cabinet are under investigation for potentially colluding with a foreign power to undermine the sanctity of our democracy?
  3. And, how will President Trump and his apologists spin a live testimony? It becomes difficult to claim “fake news” when the entire country is watching a firsthand account.

It seems, finally, that there may be more answers than questions on the horizon. Until then– stay tuned, keep your eyes open, and keep resisting.

This is the ALF, signing off.

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