- Marcy Wheeleran independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.
- Eric LiptonPulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The New York Times. His recent piece is headlined “In Gorsuch, Conservative Activist Sees Test Case for Reshaping the Judiciary.” Lipton has reported extensively on the Trump administration.
FBI Director James Comey has confirmed the FBI is investigating whether President Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russia to sway the 2016 election. Comey also said the FBI has “no information” that supports Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that President Obama tapped Trump’s phones in Trump Tower during the election. The director of the National Security Agency, Michael Rogers, also refuted President Trump’s claims that President Obama asked the British intelligence agency GCHQ to carry out the wiretap on Trump Tower. For more, we speak with journalist Marcy Wheeler, who runs the website EmptyWheel.net. We also speak with Eric Lipton, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The New York Times.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In an extraordinary disclosure, FBI Director James Comey confirmed on Monday that the FBI is investigating whether President Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
JAMES COMEY: As you know, our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters. But, in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so, as Justice Department policies recognize. This is one of those circumstances. 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. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.
AMY GOODMAN: James Comey also said the FBI has no information that supports Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that President Obama tapped Trump’s phones in Trump Tower during the election.
JAMES COMEY: 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: The department has no information that supports those tweets.
AMY GOODMAN: Comey testified on Monday along with NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers.
To talk about the hearing, we’re joined by national security reporter Marcy Wheeler, who runs the site EmptyWheel.net. Still with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. In December, he co-authored a major investigation headlined “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.”
Marcy, you covered this hearing very closely yesterday. Talk about how unusual it is and what you thought was most significant.
MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s actually the third or fourth hearing that we’ve had on the Russia investigation. The confirmation, which we already knew, but the explicit confirmation that Trump’s campaign is part of that, was an important part of that, but I think even more interesting was, way at the end of the hearing, an exchange between Elise—a congresswoman from upstate New York and Comey, where she asked why the FBI had not briefed Congress about this investigation until the last month, she said. And he explained that they hadn’t followed the normal policy, which is, he described, you go to—you go to the DNI, you go to Justice, you go to the White House, and then you brief Congress, because it was so sensitive. And he sort of suggested that the order there couldn’t be done with this investigation. And so, I think that that provided, in addition to the confirmation he gave early in the hearing, some sense of just how sensitive and, as the congresswoman said, how serious this investigation actually is.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Marcy, we actually have a clip of that exchange with Republican New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik questioning Director Comey about when he notified the congressional leadership about the agency’s investigation, which actually began in—the investigation began in July. Here’s that clip.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: So, just to drill down on this, if the open investigation began in July and the briefing of congressional leadership only occurred recently, why was there no notification prior to the recent—the past month?
JAMES COMEY: I think our decision was, it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn’t include it in the quarterly briefings.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: So, when you state “our decision,” is that your decision? Is that usually your decision, what gets briefed in those quarterly updates?
JAMES COMEY: No, it’s usually the decision of the head of our counterintelligence division.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: And just, again, to get the detailed on the record, why was the decision made not to brief senior congressional leadership until recently, when the investigation had been open since July, a very serious investigation? Why was that decision made to wait months?
JAMES COMEY: Because of the sensitivity of the matter.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Republican New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik questioning Comey, Director Comey, yesterday. Marcy Wheeler, your reaction?
MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, as I said, one of the implicit things there is that the FBI was keeping—at least for a period possibly at the beginning of the Trump administration, was keeping the description of this investigation so narrowly held, such that they weren’t willing to brief. And we’re not even talking the full intelligence committees. We’re talking just the gang of four, so Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff, Richard Burr and now Congressman—Senator Warner from Virginia. So, four people they weren’t willing to brief, because they were keeping it so closely held. That suggests how concerned they were that the investigation might be compromised by it leaking.
AMY GOODMAN: As the FBI confirms it’s investigating the Donald Trump campaign, the White House is attempting to distance itself from two former top aides, General Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, who both have established ties to Russia. This is White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer yesterday.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Even General Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign. And then, obviously, there’s been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time. But beyond—
JULIE PACE: But are you saying—
JONATHAN KARL: But he was the chairman of the campaign.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Hey, Jon—Jonathan, hold on. Can you—can you stop interrupting other people’s questions?
JONATHAN KARL: Paul Manafort didn’t play a limited role.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Hey, Jonathan, somebody’s asking a question. It’s not your press briefing. Julie is asking a question. Please calm down. Julie?
JULIE PACE: Are you saying then that the president is aware of contacts that Manafort had been—
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: No, no, nothing that hasn’t been previously discussed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcy Wheeler, that’s Sean Spicer trying to say, you know, “Oh, this guy, General Flynn, was just a volunteer, and Manafort, he didn’t spend much time with.”
MARCY WHEELER: Right, and we’ve gotten confirmation from one of Eric’s colleagues last night of details that had been leaking on the internet in the last two months about $750,000 that was laundered to Manafort. There’s a couple of other shoes, I think, that are about to drop on Manafort. So, we’ve got details now fleshing out about Manafort taking money from Russian-favorable people in Ukraine. And presumably, given what Comey testified to yesterday, the White House—or at least some people in the White House have now been briefed on the scope of the investigation. So I find it very interesting that at the precise moment that Comey was laying all of this out before the House Intelligence Committee, Sean Spicer was here trying to distance himself from these two people, who would be among the first people targeted in the investigation. So, it certainly seems like confirmation from the White House, as well, that—of the direction that the FBI is going in.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to get back to Eric Lipton of The New York Times. Your reaction to yesterday’s stunning testimony from the FBI director, both in terms of the ongoing investigation of the links, potential links, of some key Trump campaign officials to the Russian efforts to sway the U.S. election and also his discounting of Trump’s claims that President Obama tapped his phones?
ERIC LIPTON: I mean, you call them stunning. I was actually quite unimpressed with that hearing, and I didn’t find much about it stunning or surprising or that informative. I think that, you know, the fact that the FBI is investigating Russian interference in the election and that it would be looking, as part of that investigation, which we’ve known for months is going on, that, of course, it would have to address questions as to whether or not there was any coordination with the Trump campaign. Even if it concludes that there was not, these are questions that they obviously would have to address. And the notion that there was no evidence that—you know, that the Trump Tower had been wiretapped is something that both the Democrats—I’m sorry, the Republicans in the House and the Senate have said. And so, again, that was not that surprising.
And, I mean, to me, what was most evident through that hearing was the—was the extent to which both the Democrats and the Republicans were seeing it as an opportunity to sort of pontificate and, you know, share their points of view, as opposed to really digging more deeply into the questions that are out there relative to exactly what happened during the 2016 election. And, you know, I think that it’s unfortunate that we don’t—you know, even calling Comey in a public setting like that, before you have really made much progress in your investigation, I think that, to me, I would much—be much more interested in having a serious investigation that would, you know, draw new facts out that they then could then question Comey on, on the record. But I don’t see any evidence so far that they have the staff or really the use of subpoenas to really dig more deeply into exactly what happened. And I think that’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot of open questions that—there’s a lot of ground that a powerful committee could really dig into on this, that, so far, I don’t see they’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about simply the question—he chose to publicly announce that they were possibly investigating Hillary Clinton, even at that time, saying at the same time, “We are looking at the other candidate, Donald Trump, and the campaign’s ties to Russia”?
ERIC LIPTON: Yeah, I guess—I mean, your point, yeah, is well taken, as to why, if he felt the need to publicly announce that in a letter to Congress, and its investigation—although, at the time, in July, what they began was an investigation of the Russian hacking. So, it’s unclear exactly when they began to address questions as to what role, potentially, any Trump candidate folks played in that. So, you don’t know that that became a part of the examination until potentially after the election was over. So, for him simply to have said in the fall of 2016 that they were examining the potential for Russian interference in the election would not have been—I don’t think that would have answered your point.
AMY GOODMAN: Then you have Comey addressing the issue that you investigated, Eric, which was: Would he have done things differently when it came to alerting the DNC, a low-level person ending up talking to a consultant at the DNC? He said, “Yes, I would have sent out a larger flare. We would have—we just would have kept banging and banging on the door. I guess I should have walked over there myself.”
ERIC LIPTON: Yeah, I mean, I think that even the fact that they did not begin formally investigating the apparent interference by Russia in the American election until July of 2016, you know, that—they had evidence, you know, in sort of October of 2015 that there was Russian hackers that had sort of—had gone into the computer system of the DNC. And that’s when an FBI agent first notified a low-level technical person, like, you know, kind of the tech help guy. And that’s who they called on the phone to say, “By the way, it looks like basically you have Russian hackers inside the DNC’s computer system.” And it took months and months and months before it really got elevated at the DNC. And it wasn’t until May of 2016 that the DNC confirmed that they were present in their computer system and that they had been hacked and compromised. And then that began the whole series of disclosures that ultimately brought down the leadership of the DNC, and, you know, that was months of documents that then became public. And so, you know, why the FBI did not escalate that sooner and why the formal investigation was not announced and why it was not attributed to Russia earlier than October, which was the first time that the federal government actually formally attributed it, those are all important questions that we still don’t have answers to.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to have to leave it there, but, of course, we’ll continue to look at all of these issues. We want to thank Eric Lipton, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times, and Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security. Her website, EmptyWheel.net. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.