Takeaways from the first hearing in Congress on election meddling by Russia

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM
Updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM

The House Intelligence Committee held the first public hearing on questions involving actions taken by Russia to interfere with the 2016 elections in the United States, as both parties used starkly different strategies as they asked questions of the heads of the FBI and National Security Agency about that probe.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. FBI confirms Trump-Russia investigation for the first time. Many had long assumed that the FBI was investigating meddling by Russia in the 2016 U.S. elections, but today was the first time that it had been publicly announced by the FBI Director. “Our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations,” Comey said. But the FBI Director said that he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that the U.S. does have a counter intelligence probe of Russia. 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 added.

2. FBI and NSA reject Trump “wiretap” tweets. Adding their voices to those of top members in both parties on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, both FBI Director Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, said that they had found no evidence to support the March 4 tweets of President Trump, which charged that he had been subjected to wiretaps by President Obama. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Director Comey told lawmakers. There was no ambiguity involved.

3. The White House doesn’t back down on Trump “wiretap” tweets. Just a few hours after the FBI Director bluntly said there was no evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s charge that he was wiretapped during the Obama Administration, the Trump White House refused to back down from the charge. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said there was still time for more information to come out from the investigations of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, so there was no reason to say the President had been wrong in making that claim.

4. Republicans focus not on Russia but on leaks. Republicans used most of their time in this first public hearing to zero in on who leaked information about top Trump aide Michael Flynn, and his conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the United States. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) pressed the heads of the NSA and FBI repeatedly on who knew about incidental collection of Flynn’s phone calls, and who might have leaked them, naming a number of Obama Administration officials as possible suspects. The White House then used that hearing exchange to seemingly make the case that former President Obama might even have been the source of the information. It was another new theory from the White House – that did not seem to have any evidence behind it.

5. One Republican drills down into Russia efforts. While many of her colleagues focused on leaks, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) – who did not support President Trump during the election campaign – pushed for examples from the FBI and NSA on what the Russians actually did to upset the U.S. elections, and how it was different from the past. “We never saw in previous Presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed,” said the NSA chief. FBI Director Comey said it was almost like the Russians didn’t care if their actions were uncovered. “They were unusually loud,” Comey said, labeling the Russian intrusions, “very noisy.”

6. Comey admits the FBI kept Congress in the dark. In his testimony, FBI Director Comey said the counter intelligence investigation into Russian election meddling began back in July, but that Congressional leaders were not told of it before the elections – or even immediately after Election Day. “Why was the decision made not to brief senior Congressional leadership until recently,” asked Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). “Why was that decision made to wait months?” Comey said it was because of the “sensitivity of the matter.” Asked who made that decision, Comey indicated it would have been made by the head of the FBI Counter Intelligence division.

7. Republicans grumble about Comey’s “no comments.” Members of both parties tried repeatedly to get Comey to respond to hypothetical questions that might shed some light on the investigation, but didn’t get far. “I’m not going to answer,” Comey said. “I’m not going to comment,” he said when asked about a number of different people that Democrats wanted to talk about. Rebuffed a number of times in a quest for information, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) bluntly told the FBI chief that his reluctance to discuss the probe was only helping Moscow, by putting a cloud over U.S. democracy.

8. Democrats use the hearing to lay out broader questions. While Democrats did go after the Russia-meddling matter with much more direct gusto, they also had clearly decided to use this hearing to put a number of matters on the table, to make sure they were aired to a broader audience. For example, the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), used a chunk of his opening statement to refer to matters in the ‘Steele Dossier,” which emerged just before the election, a document that some had said was all false. But the fact that it received more attention today made others wonder whether parts of it had been verified along the way.

9. Not just the Trump tweets, but the British Intel story as well. Not only did today’s witnesses completely reject President Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped in 2016, but the head of the National Security Agency also ridiculed the story – promoted last week by the White House – that British Intelligence had been used by the Obama Administration to wrongly monitor Trump Tower as well. Asked directly if the NSA had asked the British GCHQ to monitor Trump, Admiral Mike Rogers did not mince words. “No sir,” Rogers said. “Nor would I.” Rogers went on to say that agreed with other assessments that such a plan would be “ridiculous.”

10. Another finger pointed at Wikileaks. While U.S. Intelligence has never publicly spelled out why it feels that Wikileaks is directly connected to Russia, there was no doubt left today that the FBI Director and others fully believe there is a link. Asked how leaked emails and more were delivered to Wikileaks, FBI Director Comey said there was an intermediary, a “cut-out” as he described it, to send information to the website, which many U.S. officials believe is nothing more than a front for Russian Intelligence. Still, others will rightfully point out that no direct links have been shown – but there is a lot of smoke.

Trump slams FBI, DOJ on Clinton, Russia probes, declares “there is absolutely no collusion”

Published: Friday, December 15, 2017 @ 11:24 AM

Before making remarks for a graduation ceremony at the FBI National Academy, President Donald Trump on Friday denounced the probe of ties between Russia and his 2016 campaign, declaring confidently that there was “absolutely no collusion,” as he again charged that the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails was ‘rigged’ in her favor, as he raised questions about institutional bias against him.

“It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI,” the President told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

“But we’re going to rebuild the FBI. It’ll be bigger and better than ever,” Mr. Trump added.

In his five minute exchange with reporters, the President brought up complaints about text messages between top officials involved in the Russia investigation, which GOP lawmakers in Congress say is evidence of a probe that’s tilted against Mr. Trump.

The President also returned to another sore spot, charging once more that federal investigators went easy on the email investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amplifying Republican Party charges of bias against top officials of the FBI and Justice Department.

“When you look at the Hillary Clinton investigation, I’ve been saying it for a long time, that was a rigged system, folks,” the President said.

“It’s very, very sad,” Mr. Trump added.

The President’s remarks came as some Democrats are worried that Mr. Trump may move to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and try to force an end to the investigation of contacts between the Trump Campaign and Russia, both before and after the 2016 election.

“There is absolutely no collusion; I didn’t make a phone call to Russia, I have nothing to do with Russia,” the President told reporters, as his Marine One helicopter warmed up behind him.

Mr. Trump was specifically asked about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who plead guilty earlier this month to a charge of lying to FBI agents about his post-election contacts with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.

“I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn, yet,” the President answered.

Kasich to GOP: ‘The party is losing the future’

Published: Friday, December 15, 2017 @ 10:54 AM

            Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
            Ron Schwane
Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)(Ron Schwane)

Don’t count Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the crowd of Republicans who argue that Alabama Republican Roy Moore’s Senate election defeat Tuesday is an isolated event.

Kasich is warning anyone who will listen that the Republican Party is losing the support of both suburban voters and young people who will decide future elections.

RELATED: Kasich, Brown react to Alabama election

Appearing on CNN Thursday night, Kasich said the Republican defeats in Alabama and last month in the Virginia gubernatorial election are signs that the suburban voters Republicans “have counted on” are drifting away from the party and turning toward Democratic candidates.

“The party is losing the future as we’re standing here today,” Kasich told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I mean the future is young people. Young people right now are not inclined to vote Republican; overwhelmingly against.”

RELATED: GOP grapples with Alabama fallout

In implicit criticism of Moore, an ultra-conservative accused of having pursued a romantic relationship more than three decades ago with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s, Kasich said Republicans need “to have an agenda that is not reflected on yesterday, but on tomorrow.”

“And in addition if you are going to be a party that’s going to be narrow, that is going to try to shrink everything, whether it is going to be anti-immigration, anti-trade — that’s not going to make it,” Kasich said in a none-too-subtle jab at President Donald Trump.

RELATED: Alabama results remake 2018 election playbook

Not everybody in the GOP agrees that Tuesday’s election result in Alabama, which Trump took by 28-percentage points just a year ago, was an indictment on the Republican party’s policies and direction.

“The message is very simple,” said Corry Bliss, who managed the 2016 re-election campaign of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “People don’t vote for pedophiles.”

Hammering out the details, GOP tries to corral final votes for tax reform

Published: Friday, December 15, 2017 @ 4:04 AM

Republicans in Congress on Thursday moved to put the finishing touches on a sweeping reform of the federal tax code, though the effort was endangered as a pair of GOP Senators signaled their opposition to a final child tax credit deal, while the health problems of two other GOP Senators also clouded plans for a final vote next week.

“There is no done deal yet from my perspective,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) about the final tax reform bill. “It is not over.”

GOP aides had made clear to reporters on Wednesday that a tentative deal had been reached – even before the first official meeting of House-Senate negotiators – but it was obvious on Thursday afternoon that the entire tax plan was not yet set in legislative stone.

One of the bigger hot spots was with the details of the child tax credit, as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) expressed irritation with the terms of the final agreement, as they said it didn’t go far enough to help lower income families. Rubio threatened to vote against the bill.

One tax negotiator saw little chance that Rubio would win any further change in the bill, arguing the Senate had prevailed over the House on that point in the negotiations.

“It was a hard fought victory for us,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). “We won everything on that child tax credit.”

Meanwhile, the White House expressed satisfaction with the terms of that deal as well.

“Look, we’re really proud of the work that we’ve done already up until this point, with Senator Rubio, already doubling the child tax credit, taking it to $2,000 per child,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“Senator Rubio will be there,” the President told reporters. “We’re doing very well on the tax front.”

In both the House and Senate, GOP vote counters were trying to make sure that enough Republicans would be on board in votes next week.

“I’m waiting to look at the whole bill,” said Rep. John Faso (R-NY), one of a number of Republicans from New York, New Jersey and California who were not pleased with the impact on taxpayers who itemize deductions.

One of the hurdles was the financial juggling act going on inside the GOP bill, as Republicans were arranging time limits on certain tax changes, which would make the overall plan seem less expensive.

“We’re literally trying to squeeze about $2 trillion in tax reform into a $1.5 trillion box and that’s been a problem,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

Meanwhile, the health issues of two Senators were also raising concerns among Republicans, as Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) missed every vote in the Senate this week.

With the GOP advantage only 52-48, the absence of just one of those two ailing Senators could cause problems for Republicans on tax reform, especially if more than one Republican decides to vote against the final deal.

Report says House Speaker Paul Ryan may retire in 2018, he says it’s not true

Published: Thursday, December 14, 2017 @ 12:44 PM
Updated: Thursday, December 14, 2017 @ 4:31 PM

House Speaker Paul Ryan. Getty Images
House Speaker Paul Ryan. Getty Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, may retire from Congress after the 2018 midterm elections, according to a report in Politico.

“In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker—fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists—not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018,” the article by Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade says.

Read the full Politico story here

Ryan denied the report was true in a call with President Donald Trump Thursday.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Ryan “assured the president that those were not accurate reports and that they look forward to working together for a long time.”

Ryan became speaker in October 2015 after former Speaker John Boehner stepped down after five turbulent years.

Republicans rallied behind Rep. Paul Ryan to elect him the House’s 54th speaker on Thursday as a splintered GOP turned to the youthful but battle-tested lawmaker to mend its self-inflicted wounds and craft a conservative message to woo voters in next year’s elections..

RELATED: Paul Ryan becomes speaker after Boehner steps down

RELATED: Jim Jordan, Freedom Caucus not pleased with Speaker Ryan

RELATED: Paul Ryan graduated from Miami University in 1992