President Donald Trump’s top spokesman wants the world to “take no for an answer” on whether there was collusion between Russian officials and the former reality television star’s presidential campaign, even while the House Intelligence Committee chairman says “a big gray cloud” is hanging over Trump’s associates in the form of an FBI investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“There is a big gray cloud that you have put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. The faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” California Republican Devin Nunes said to FBI Director James B. Comey at the conclusion of a nearly six-hour hearing on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow directed a campaign to disrupt the election and help Trump win the White House.
Comey started off the hearing by confirming what had been speculated for months: that the FBI was 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.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pushed back hard. “Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” Spicer said of the FBI inquiry, which started late last summer and has yet to be closed.
“I think that when you get to the bottom of it … we’ll have a much better picture of what’s happening, and I think it’ll continue to vindicate him,” he said, referring to Trump.
Adding to the tricky context, Comey told the House committee that FBI officials opted against briefing congressional leaders on the inquiry until recently because they decided it was too sensitive.
Congressional leaders were briefed for the first time just weeks ago on the “nature of the investigation in some detail,” Comey said. Before that, FBI officials determined the inquiry was a matter of “such sensitivity” that they should wait to brief leadership, he added.
Comey told New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik that the final call on withholding such information from top lawmakers about this kind of case is typically made by the head of the bureau’s counterintelligence division, not the FBI director.
Trump’s press secretary called allegations of collusion between Russia and the campaign a media “narrative,” and tried to deflect reporters’ attention toward potential contacts between Moscow and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
A defiant Spicer said several times there was “no evidence” of nefarious ties, even though the FBI’s inquiry is still underway. He contended that “everybody who’s been briefed on that investigation” has stated publicly they have seen no evidence of collusion, pointing to Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as several former Obama administration officials.
He accused anyone who believes impure ties existed as merely jumping to some conclusions, and urged reporters to look into and write about Russia-Clinton ties and why the identities of some U.S. individuals, including Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, were “unmasked” in intelligence reports that were leaked to media outlets.
The talking point on leaks mirrored those of several Republicans grilling Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers at Monday’s hearing.
Meanwhile, Spicer also found time to signal — again — on Monday that there is more to come on Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped. Comey testified on Monday he had seen no evidence of that allegation.
While discussing Trump’s wiretapping allegations, Spicer said he was not contending that the president has more information than his top law enforcement agency. But he did say that “there’s a lot more we need to know” because “there’s a lot more questions than answers.”
Asked when, given Comey’s public testimony about the wiretapping claims, Trump might drop the matter, his top spokesman replied: “It’s a question of when we get answers,” rather than going by a fixed date.
The White House wants the collusion question placed on the shelf; but the Obama-ordered surveillance is, as Spicer described it Monday, just at the “first chapter.”
In a related lighter moment when reporters were allowed into the Oval Office, Trump declined to answer questions about the alleged wiretapping. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, according to a pool report, grabbed Trump’s arm and quipped, “We had nothing to do with the wiretap.”