Top intelligence and justice officials on Wednesday refused to answer questions from senators about whether the Trump administration had ever asked them to influence the FBI's ongoing Russia investigation.
Wednesday's hearing was the Senate Intelligence committee's first opportunity to publicly question Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers about recent Washington Post stories alleging Trump had asked them to make public statements about or intervene in the FBI investigation.
And it was first opportunity for Congress to question Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe since the New York Times reported on a memo from former FBI Director James Comey alleging that the president had asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo that Trump cited in his decision to fire Comey, also testified Wednesday.
Though the hearing was supposed to be focused on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, many senators wanted to know whether the White House was trying to meddle in an active FBI investigation. But all four witnesses repeatedly declined to address any questions on the Russia investigation or their conversations with the president about it, using a variety of different reasons to explain their decision to pass.
As committee Vice Chair Mark Warner said at the end of the hearing, many senators left frustrated at the lack of answers and more confused than before.
"It just shows what kind of an Orwellian existence that we live in,” Sen. John McCain, who participated in Wednesday's hearing, said of witnesses refusing to answer questions in public, even though some of the information had appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on Wednesday morning.
Even Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, felt compelled at the end of the hearing to issue a warning to the witnesses for them to bring back to the Trump administration. "At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer," he said.
Here are some of the various reasons the witnesses gave for not answering the senators' questions:
Rogers: "I am not going to discuss the specifics of any interaction or conversations" with Trump.
Back in May, the Washington Post reported that Trump had asked Coats and Rogers to "publicly deny" that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
When asked about the allegations, Rogers said he wouldn't comment on the particulars.
"I am not going to discuss the specifics of any interaction or conversations I [...] may or may not have had with the President of the United States, but I will make the following comment," Rogers said. "In the three-plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate."
On Tuesday night, the Washington Post reported that Coats told associates that Trump had asked him to try to pressure Comey to back off the investigation, specifically with regards to Flynn. But when asked Wednesday, Coats, too, declined to answer.
Coats, asked to clear things up, said: "I do not feel it's appropriate for me to, in a public session, in which confidential conversations between the president and myself — I don't believe it's appropriate for me to address that in a public session."
Coats: "I don't believe it's appropriate for me to address that in a public session."
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio pressed Rogers to specifically say whether he had been asked — not "felt pressured" — by any administration to issue a false statement. "I stand by my previous statement," Rogers said.
"I do likewise," Coats said.
Rogers: "I stand by my previous statement."
In May, the New York Times reported that Trump asked Comey to back off Flynn in the context of the Russia investigation. (Comey himself confirmed that reporting with his prepared statement for Thursday's hearing, which the committee released Wednesday afternoon, after the hearing was over).
But earlier in the day, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe wouldn't divulge anything about those conversations. McCabe at first argued he didn't want to talk about Comey's conversations with the president. Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich pointed out that he was asking about McCabe's own conversations with Comey, but McCabe still refused to answer, saying those conversations “begin to fall within the scope” of the special counsel's Russia investigation.
"I think I'll let Director Comey speak for himself tomorrow in front of this committee," he added.
McCabe: "I'm not going to comment on those conversations."
Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, lambasted the witnesses for refusing to answer to the committee, which is responsible for oversight of the intelligence agencies. He argued that if the information wasn't classified, and the White House hadn't exerted its executive privilege, then the witnesses should answer.
But Rogers insisted he couldn't answer. "Because I feel it is inappropriate, senator," he told King.
"What you feel isn't relevant, admiral," King retorted.
Rogers: "Because I feel it is inappropriate, senator."
King continued, demanding a legal basis for McCabe's and Coats' refusal to discuss their conversations with the president about the Russia investigation.
Coats: "I'm not sure I have a legal basis" for refusing to answer.
Following that exchange, Rogers provided a new reason for his repeated refusal to answer the senators' questions on Russia and any meetings with Trump: He needed to see whether the White House wanted to invoke executive privilege and limit or prevent his testimony.
"Because of the sensitive nature and the executive privilege aspect to this, I need to be talking to the general counsel in the White House," Rogers said.
Coats said he would respond to senators' questions during a private session and repeated Rogers' line. "But I do have to work through the legal counsel at the White House relative to whether or not they're going to exercise executive [privilege]," he said.
Rogers agreed, saying he hoped to be able to answer the questions. "I believe that's the appropriate thing," he said. "But I do have to acknowledge because of the sensitive nature and the executive privilege aspect to this, I need to be talking to the general counsel in the White House. I hope we come to a position where we can have this dialogue."
Emma Loop is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. PGP fingerprint: 4A39 DD99 953C 6CAF D68C 85CD C380 AB23 859B 0611.
Contact Emma Loop at email@example.com.
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