The House Intelligence Committee on Monday holds the first open hearing in its investigation into interference by Russia in the 2016 U.S. elections, with lawmakers first getting testimony from the heads of the FBI and the National Security Agency, as a number of questions remain unanswered both about Russian actions and any possible ties to associates of President Donald Trump.
Let’s take a look at where things stand:
1. Will the FBI Director say anything of note? FBI Director James Comey will get the most attention in this rare public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Monday morning, but will he say much in this setting about the investigation into not only Russian election interference, but anything about the probe into links between associates of President Trump and the Russian Government? Comey has briefed lawmakers multiple times in recent weeks; not only has he avoided public comment, but members of both parties who have received the briefings have said almost next to nothing of substance to reporters, even as they note the seriousness of the issue. If so much of this investigation is this classified, how can much really be revealed in a public hearing?
2. Will there be a direct answer about Trump’s wiretap charge? Nothing has roiled the waters more on this Russia investigation than the claim by President Trump that he was wiretapped by President Obama in 2016. Mr. Trump has offered no concrete evidence to back up that charge, and the White House instead threw the issue to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to investigate. So far, members of those panels have said there is nothing to the President’s explosive charge, but will those words come out of the mouth of the FBI Director or the NSA chief? And if there is a direct public rebuke of the President, how will the White House react?
3. So far, no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. Despite a lot of talk, and a lot of conspiracy theory research on social media by critics of President Trump, there hasn’t been any hard evidence provided of a link between the Trump Campaign and Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections. Yes, there are plenty of examples of Trump aides and supporters having links to Russian officials (Michael Flynn is just one example), but nothing that shows Trump associates were in cahoots with Moscow. “When Devin Nunes came out and said there was no connection that he saw to Russia — crickets,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, as the White House charges the press has ignored this part of the story. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee says there is “circumstantial evidence” of links – but that’s different than hard evidence.
4. Will there be more substance about 2016 email hacks? While a number of intelligence experts believe that the Russian Government was behind last year’s email hacks on top Clinton aide John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee, neither the U.S. Intelligence Community nor the FBI has drawn a bright line between those actions and how the materials got to Wikileaks for release on the internet. Yes, a lot of people with intelligence experience believe that Wikileaks is nothing but a front for Russian Intelligence; but it’s one thing to believe something, and it’s another thing to present evidence to back that up. Will this investigation change any of that, or leave it unresolved?
5. President Trump has certainly turned the spotlight on himself. One reason that Sean Spicer has faced more questions on Russia in the past two weeks is because of his boss. The tweets that President Trump sent out on March 4, in which he claimed that the Obama Administration had used surveillance against his campaign and/or Trump Tower itself, have spurred renewed interest in this entire story. Were associates of Trump really being investigated for links to Russia? Was Trump Tower really a focus of an investigation? It was Mr. Trump who fanned the flames of those questions with his tweets, and then his subsequent refusal to back up his wiretap charge against President Obama with evidence. Since those tweets, this issue has grabbed much more political traction – even polls from organizations friendly to the President have shown an uptick in Americans wanting answers.
6. Get ready to hear about “incidental collection.” One item that may be discussed in these hearings is the term “incidental collection,” which covers the situation where U.S. Intelligence or law enforcement is using a wiretap on a foreign person, and an American citizen then gets on the phone with that person. Yes, you have rights not to be the subject of a wiretap without a warrant, but if you are speaking to someone on the phone or emailing with someone who is under surveillance, your communications are swept up – that is known as “incidental collection.” That is presumably how it was found out that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had been speaking to the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Flynn was not the target, but he spoke with people who were under surveillance.
7. Were there other Trump associates who were heard like Flynn? The House Intelligence Committee has asked for the names of any other Americans who were the subject of “incidental collection” in whatever investigations were being conducted with respect to Russia. But one other part of this Congressional review revolves around the leaks of that information. House Intelligence chairman Nunes has made no bones about his desire to find out how information was leaked about Michael Flynn talking to the Russian Ambassador, and if names of other Trump Associates – who might have been the subject of incidental collection – were the subject of leaks as well. This is where the two parties may go their separate ways.
8. What about the charge that British Intelligence watched Trump? One other item that could be addressed on Monday is the charge that British Intelligence was helping the Obama Administration keep tabs on Trump Tower. In an interview with the BBC on Saturday, Richard Ledgett, the outgoing Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, said the idea that British Intelligence had helped the Obama Administration to spy on Donald Trump was “just crazy.” “It would be epically stupid,” Ledgett said. Despite such denials, President Trump on Friday let the possibility stand, even as the British government demanded a public retraction. “Trump fuels diplomatic row with Britain,” was one of the many headlines in London this weekend.
9. Maybe a sign of a growing Congressional investigation. The New York Times reported this weekend that the Senate Intelligence Committee has sent one associate of President Trump – former aide Roger Stone – a letter asking him to preserve any documents that might pertain to the Russia investigation. Stone has drawn interest for several reasons, as he tweeted back in August that something was up with Hillary Clinton aide John Podesta. Since, then Stone has not denied that he had a ‘back channel’ to Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks. Stone is certainly a character straight out of a Hollywood script; whether he really has any important information related to this probe is unclear.
10. Shocking headlines in the grocery store checkout aisle. While grabbing something at the grocery store on Friday, it wasn’t hard to spot the most interesting item in the checkout line. We’ll see if these hearings can give the National Enquirer anything else to write about.