WASHINGTON — Two of the nation’s top intelligence officials declined in a testy hearing Wednesday to discuss the specifics of private conversations with President Donald Trump, refusing to say whether they had been asked to push back against an FBI probe into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats demurred when asked whether it was true, as The Washington Post reported Tuesday, that Trump asked Coats if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get him to back off the bureau’s focus on Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to address that in a public session,” Coats said. “I don’t think this is the appropriate venue to do this in.”
Similarly, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers declined to answer when Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, questioned whether Trump asked him to deny the existence of any evidence showing coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, as the Post reported last month.
“I’m not going to discuss the specifics of any conversations with the president of the United States,” Rogers said.
Instead, both men said they never felt pressure to do anything inappropriate, or, in Coats’ case, to intervene in an ongoing probe.
Both men struggled to provide a consistent rationale for why they could not discuss the conversations with Trump. Rogers offered that the conversations were classified. But when pressed by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, he could not specify what was classified about the conversation.
The officials’ refusal to address whether Trump asked them to downplay or somehow impede the investigation disturbed the committee’s Democrats, who were visibly frustrated by what one lawmaker called their “filibustering.”
Warner told Rogers the committee had “facts that there were other individuals” who were aware of his conversation with Trump and that a memo had been prepared “because of concerns” about the call.
In one particularly heated exchange, King lambasted the two intelligence officials for not offering a legal basis for refusing to discuss their discussions with the president about the Russia investigation. The probe is now being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, following Trump’s May 9 firing of Comey.
“It is my belief that you are inappropriately refusing to answer these questions today,” King said angrily. When he asked Rogers why he wasn’t answering the questions, Rogers responded that he felt it was “inappropriate.”
“What you feel isn’t relevant, Admiral. What you feel isn’t the answer,” King said. “Why are you not answering the questions? Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, let’s know about it. If there isn’t, answer the questions.
Rogers replied, “I stand by the comments I’ve made. I’m not interested in repeating myself, sir. I don’t mean that in a contentious way.”
“Well I do mean it in a contentious way,” King said.
When King asked Coats what the basis was for his refusal to answer questions, Coats too said he didn’t believe it was appropriate.
“I’m not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it is appropriate’ or ‘I do not feel I should answer,’” King said. “I want to understand a legal basis. You swore that oath — to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Today, you are refusing to do so.”
Coats said he didn’t have a specific legal justification for declining to answer such questions, but suggested he might be able to do so in the classified, closed briefing later in the day. Asked if he would be forthcoming in such a setting, Coats said he intended to, but did not know yet whether the White House would block such discussion by asserting that executive privilege covers his conversations with the president.
The exchange suggested the president could use executive privilege to prevent certain information from being shared with a congressional investigation into any possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates.
Though the hearing was supposed to focus on a critical surveillance authority that is set to expire in December, much of the discussion was dominated by Democrats’ efforts to elicit testimony about potential efforts by the president to interfere in the criminal investigation.
They also pressed Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe on whether he ever discussed with Comey any conversations Trump had with the then-FBI director. Trump reportedly has at various times in private conversations with Comey asked him for a pledge of loyalty and also urged him to drop the probe into Flynn.
McCabe repeatedly declined to answer, saying Comey would testify to the committee Thursday. One reason for his reticence, he said, is he did not want to interfere with Mueller’s probe — a strong hint that the investigation may expand to cover potential criminal attempts by the president to impede its course.
“I think that those matters also begin to fall within the scope of issues being investigated by the special counsel,” McCabe said.
The acting director of the FBI also clarified a key point from an earlier congressional appearance, in which he had said there’d been no effort to slow or interfere with the Russia probe. What he meant, McCabe said, was that the firing of Comey had not stalled the investigation.
Also frustrating the Democrats was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s refusal to state outright what he had told senators in a closed session last month — that he knew a memo he had written critical of Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server would be used as justification for Comey’s firing. When asked if he knew that was the case, he responded with answers that did not directly address the question.
“You’ve filibustered better than most of my colleagues,” an exasperated Heinrich said. “So we’ll move on.”