The head of the FBI testified Wednesday that even in a secret session he isn’t sure he can reveal to an entire congressional committee the status of his agency’s counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between members of President Donald Trump’s team and Russia.
That matters because FBI Director James Comey’s public testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee was seen as a warmup for his closed-session appearance Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee as it reopens its stalled investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election. But Comey said he might be unable to add much to what he’d already said, despite the insistence of the Republican members of the House committee that their probe couldn’t go forward till they heard from Comey in a closed session.
Comey said he’d already “briefed congressional intelligence leaders on who we have open investigations on. I’m not sure I can share that with the full committees.”
Such a development would be a blow to the House Intelligence Committee probe, which has been on hold for more than a month awaiting Comey’s testimony. It would also hurt other investigations, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who’s been investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia and Turkey. Cummings called the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation vital.
“This is their turf,” he said. “They are the leaders.”
Still, committee members said they were heading into the hearing with Comey and National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers with hope. Their last meeting with Comey, a public session in March, gave the clearest picture yet of what is at stake. It was then that Comey revealed that the FBI had launched a counterintelligence investigation that could result in criminal charges against members of Trump’s campaign.
Cummings’ piece of this investigation has already revealed that Flynn might face criminal charges for failing to disclose work he’d done for Russia and Turkey before taking over as Trump’s top national security official. He lasted 24 days in that job before the president fired him after it was revealed that the then acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had warned the White House that Flynn had lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The highest-ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said he thought the investigation was ready to move forward, though a hearing with former officials from the Obama administration, including Yates, is only now being rescheduled. Yates will testify first before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee next week.
“I believe we can reset our investigation,” Schiff said. “If the American people are going to find our investigation credible, as much as is possible it has to happen in public settings.”
He said he hoped Comey would provide details of the FBI’s investigation in private that he had been unable to provide in public, a position shared by Republicans on the committee.
But Comey’s statement Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether classified details can be shared with an entire committee, not just top congressional leaders, could undercut that.
Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, one of the few Republicans on the committee willing to talk, said the closed session was needed because of the number of times Comey had answered questions in the March open session by saying, “I can’t answer that in an open session.”
Thursday’s hearing will be the first since Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, took over leadership of the probe. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., recused himself after the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into whether he himself had improperly revealed classified information.
Conaway’s role in the March hearing was most notable for his use of a Texas Tech-Texas football analogy to describe Russian meddling on behalf of Trump.
An accountant who describes himself as methodical, Conaway is best known for his work on the House Agriculture Committee, where he is now chairman. Last month, he led a hearing on the impact of a federal tax overhaul on farming and ranching. Some of that expertise might transfer. As he noted at a hearing in April: “Few sectors are subject to as many unknowns as farming and ranching.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said he was “eager to get back on track” with the investigation. “Thursday is our best time to find out if that will happen.”
Among the details Swalwell would like filled in: “Does the FBI have the necessary resources to follow the facts wherever they lead?”
“I don’t want to hear that this was the best we could do with what we had,” he said. “This is too important.”
Still, during the Wednesday hearing, Comey left it clear that he plans no public update soon. When asked when the next one would come, he answered, “Certainly not before the matter is concluded.”
And what then? “Some investigations end in criminal charges. Some do not,” he said.