By Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian
WASHINGTON – Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe vowed Thursday that he would tell the Senate Intelligence Committee if the White House tried to interfere with the bureau’s probe of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election – though he asserted that there had “been no effort to impede our investigation to date.”
McCabe made the assertions at a public hearing with top U.S. intelligence officials before the Senate Intelligence Committee – a hearing that has taken on new significance since Trump suddenly removed James Comey from the FBI’s top post. He also said he would not provide updates to President Trump or anyone else in the White House about the status of the probe, nor had anyone yet asked.
As the hearing continued, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top committee officials from each party, suddenly stepped out. Around the same time, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was spotted on Capitol Hill.
Rosenstein drafted the memo that Trump used as a rationale to fire Comey.
McCabe appeared in place of Comey, and Warner, the committee vice chair, asked him at the outset if he would commit to informing the committee if the White House tried to meddle in the Russia investigation.
“I absolutely do,” McCabe responded.
McCabe would go on to make several assertions that might irk Trump. He forcefully defended his former boss – who Trump had said was not doing a good job – declaring that working with Comey was “the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life.” He said that his view was widely shared in the agency.
“The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey,” McCabe said.
McCabe also rebutted White House officials’ attempts to minimize the Russia probe – declaring it a “highly significant investigation” that had not and would not be deterred.
“Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
McCabe declined to comment on Trump’s assertion that Comey, while FBI director, had told him three times that he was not under investigation.
Trump had made the claim in his letter firing Comey as a sort of bizarre aside – as the rationale for removing the FBI director was purportedly not in relation to any probe that might touch the president but instead because of Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.
Burr, the committee’s chair, asked McCabe: “Did you ever hear Director Comey tell the president that he was not the subject of an investigation?”
“Sir, I can’t comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president,” McCabe responded.
McCabe’s testimony comes as Justice Department officials are considering candidates to possibly replace him. They interviewed four people Wednesday and are expected to make a decision soon.
McCabe, who had been the No. 2 man in the bureau before his boss’s ouster, was joined by virtually every other top official whose job it is to detect and prevent Russian spy operations. The others on the witness list are CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, like the FBI, is probing Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and its chairs announced Wednesday that they had issued a subpoena to former national security adviser Michael Flynn for documents related to that probe.
Flynn resigned from the Trump White House after public reporting on potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, which acting attorney general Sally Yates warned might make him susceptible to blackmail. He also has faced scrutiny for payments he received from Russian-backed entities, including the RT television network.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Pompeo sparred over a series of questions about whether Pompeo was aware of Yates’s concerns. Pompeo first challenged Wyden to define how his question was relevant to the published subject of the hearing – worldwide threats – before arguing that he had “no firsthand information with respect to the warning” that Yates delivered to White House counsel Don McGahn, as “she didn’t make that warning to me.”
The bureau’s probe, the only one that could produce criminal charges, is separate from the committee’s, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feared that it might be upended now that Comey is gone. McCabe said he did not believe that would happen, and that the bureau was the right agency to continue the investigation.
“Do you need somebody to take this away from you and somebody else to do it?” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked.
“No, sir,” McCabe responded.
McCabe did not definitively resolve a dispute over whether Comey asked Rosenstein for more resources for the Russia investigation last week, though he asserted that the bureau had “resourced that investigation adequately.” Democrats have said that Comey informed lawmakers of such a request, but the Justice Department has denied that one was made.
For his part, McCabe said he was “not aware of that request, and it’s not consistent with my understanding of how we request additional resources.”
On Thursday, senior Appropriations committee Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire sent a letter to Rosenstein asking for specifics.
“We stand ready to assist should the FBI require additional funding to comprehensively conduct this crucial investigation or to meet any of its core missions,” they wrote in the letter. But Leahy and Shaheen said they were “surprised” to learn from media reports about Comey’s request.
“The American people have a right to know, for the sake of our national security and sovereignty, whether and to what extent Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential election,” they wrote. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should dedicate the needed personnel and resources to the investigation without hesitation.”
As the deputy director of the FBI, McCabe would have been intimately involved in the Russia investigation even before Comey’s firing. He was notably at the center of a February incident in which the White House reportedly enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress in efforts to counter news stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
CNN reported at the time that the FBI had refused administration requests to knock down media reports on the subject, and the administration fired back that McCabe had pulled aside Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to tell him a New York Times story was “B.S.”
McCabe was also at the center of a controversy in the Clinton email investigation – the case that administration officials have pointed to as Trump’s basis for firing Comey. The Justice Department inspector general is investigating whether McCabe should have been recused from the case because his wife ran for a Virginia Senate seat and took money from the political action committee of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and Clinton ally.
The FBI asserted at the time that McCabe had checked with ethics officials and followed agency protocols. He also was not yet deputy director when his wife was first recruited to run.
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