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FBI head denies Trump wiretap claim, confirms Russia election probe

FBI Director James Comey testifies before the House Intelligence Committee hearing into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election on Capitol Hill. (photo by Joshua Roberts, Reuters)
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WASHINGTON -- The head of the FBI publicly challenged US President Donald Trump on Monday, denying the Republican's claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped his 2016 election campaign and confirming his agency had launched a criminal investigation into any collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia.

FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing he had seen no evidence to support a claim by Trump that Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters in Manhattan's Trump Tower.

The president created a controversy in early March when he tweeted without giving evidence that Obama had wiretapped the campaign as the businessman took on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

"With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets," Comey told the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing.

The committee is investigating accusations that Russia tried to influence the election mostly by hacking Democratic operatives' emails and releasing embarrassing information. Russia denies the allegations.


Comey confirmed the FBI has been investigating since last July possible Russian government efforts to interfere in the election, including any links between Trump's campaign and Moscow. He said that while the Russian government wanted to hurt Clinton's campaign and help Trump's, intelligence agencies made no judgment on whether the efforts influenced the outcome.

Comey gave no details of the classified investigation and said the fact that it exists does not mean charges will be filed.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to help Trump by hacking leading Democrats. Comey said Moscow had long been opposed to Trump's election rival, former secretary of state Clinton.

"I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the (intelligence) community," he said. "Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much."

Asked about Comey, White House spokesman Sean Spicer read a series of quotes from officials - some from the Obama administration - who have said they have seen no signs of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia.

In a tweet before the hearing, Trump wrote: "The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign."

Spicer said he was not aware of any White House official being under investigation by the FBI.

Russian ties

Trump has frequently urged better relations with Russia, which has been at odds with the United States in recent years over Moscow's role in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, detailed activities by Trump advisers or associates with ties to Russia, including former election campaign manager Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who was forced out as Trump's national security adviser after talking to the Russian ambassador and then misrepresenting the conversation to Vice President Mike Pence.

"Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible," Schiff said. "But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated."

Trump's March 4 tweet about wiretapping, which was made without supporting evidence, pulled attention away from the claims of Russian interference in the election. He made the claim two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had met with Russia’s US ambassador last fall, said he would remove himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the election.

Trump and his advisers have contended in recent weeks that his claims of wiretapping were intended to mean surveillance of the Trump campaign in general but the White House has not provided evidence of surveillance of any kind.

Last week, Trump's spokesman cited a media report that Britain's GCHQ spy agency was behind the surveillance, prompting ridicule in Britain.

The head of the US National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, told Monday's hearing that the allegation had strained relations with London.

"I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours," Rogers said.

Comey warned that Russia would attempt to influence the next US presidential election in 2020 and perhaps the congressional elections next year. "They'll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018," he said.

The hearing was a rare open congressional intelligence committee hearing and it revealed a stark partisan divide in focus. Majority Republicans concentrated their questions on leaks of classified information - a concern that Trump frequently mentions - and media reports on issues such as contacts between former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian officials.

Democrats sought to highlight such links, and shoot down Trump’s wiretapping claim.

Here are key quotes from the hearing, where FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers testified:

On Trump's claim that Obama wiretapped him:

"With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components." - Comey

"Let me be clear: we know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates." - Committee Chairman Representative Devin Nunes

On the FBI investigation of Russia's interference:

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice 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 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." - Comey

On unverified claims that Obama asked Britain's GCHQ to eavesdrop on Trump:

"That would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes (intelligence-sharing) agreement that's been in place for decades. ... I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity."

The claim "clearly frustrates a key ally of ours." - Rogers

On leaks of classified information:

"Numerous current and former officials have leaked purportedly classified information in connection to these questions. We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so that these individuals can be brought to justice." - Nunes

"Leaks have always been a problem. I read over the weekend something from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln complaining about them. But I do think in the last six weeks, couple of months, there's been ... a lot of conversation about classified matters that's ending up in the media." - Comey.

On the US intelligence judgment that Russia favored Trump over democratic opponent Hillary Clinton:

"I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the community. Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much." - Comey

On future Russian hacking:

"They'll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018 and one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord." - Comey

On whether Russian influence determined the election outcome:

"We will never know whether the Russian intervention was determinative in such a close election. ... What does matter is this: The Russians successfully meddled in our democracy and our intelligence agencies have concluded they will do so again." - Ranking committee Democrat Representative Adam Schiff