The White House made a series of misleading statements in an effort to put its best spin on a House intelligence committee hearing into Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign:
- During the hearing, the official White House Twitter account posted this: "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process." FBI Director James Comey directly refuted that tweet at the hearing by saying, "It's never something that we looked at."
- The White House also tweeted that former intelligence director James Clapper was "right" to say there was "no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump Campaign." But Clapper said he had no such information "at the time," meaning before he left office in January.
- White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely said that "every person, Republican and Democrat, that has been briefed" on the investigation has concluded "there is no collusion and that that's over." Some have said there is circumstantial evidence that warrants further investigation.
- The White House tweeted that the FBI director "refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia," suggesting that Comey's response was significant. It wasn't. Comey repeatedly said he was "not going to talk about U.S. persons."
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on March 20 to take testimony from Comey, the FBI director, and Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. Both were asked questions about the ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russia's activities during the 2016 presidential election.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Jan. 6 released a declassified intelligence report that found "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election." Among other things, the report said, Russian intelligence services gained access to Democratic National Committee computers for nearly a year, from July 2015 to June 2016, and released hacked material to WikiLeaks and other outlets "to help President-elect [Donald] Trump's election chances."
At the hearing, Comey confirmed that the FBI investigation "includes 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."
Comey, March 20: I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes 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. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.
Comey also testified that the Department of Justice and the FBI have no information to support President Donald Trump's tweets that President Obama wiretapped his phone during the 2016 campaign.
"With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI," Comey said. "The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets."
Comey essentially confirmed media reports of the existence of a counterintelligence investigation that includes investigating any possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russia. Trump has dismissed such accounts as " fake news," including just hours before the hearing started.
During and after the hearing, the White House sought to put the best spin on the day by highlighting what Spicer called "some new information." But in doing so the White House made some misleading claims.
Russian Influence on 'Electoral Process'
The official White House Twitter account @POTUS was very active during the House hearing. (The official account - which is separate from the president's personal Twitter account @realDonaldTrump - says that the tweets from Trump are signed with DJT, but the ones we mention here were not signed by the president.)
During the hearing, the White House posted this tweet: "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process." But that's not what Comey or Rogers told the committee.
In fact, Comey directly refuted the tweet - which was sent while the hearing was still in progress. Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, read the tweet and asked Comey about it.
Himes, March 20: I can read it to you. It says, "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral - the electoral process." This tweet has gone out to millions of Americans, 16.1 million to be exact. Is the tweet, as I read it to you, "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process." Is that accurate?
Comey: Well, it's hard for me to react to that, let me just tell you what we understand the - the state of what we've said is. We've offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact because it's never something that we looked at.
As we wrote in " Spinning the Russian Report," the intelligence report released Jan. 6 - which was based on intelligence collected by the NSA, CIA and FBI, and drafted in coordination with those agencies - said that the intelligence community made no attempt to gauge the impact of the Russian influence campaign.
Director of National Intelligence report: The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.
What was the White House talking about? The tweet (see below) included a video of Rogers, the NSA director, answering questions from GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee chairman, about whether the Russians hacked voting machines and "changed vote tallies" in key swing states.
Rogers responded no to each of the six states mentioned by Nunes: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process. pic.twitter.com/d9HqkxYBt5
- President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
But Rogers was merely repeating what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 5. "They did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort," said Clapper, who since has stepped down as the intelligence director.
The fact that Russian hackers did not change votes does not mean that "Russia did not influence electoral process." The intelligence community has taken no position on whether Russia influenced the election outcome.
'No Evidence of Collusion'
The White House, in a tweet, and Spicer, in his daily press briefing, attempted to dismiss the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials by citing comments made by intelligence leaders in the Obama administration, as well as by Democratic and Republican leaders who have been briefed on the investigation to date.
But the White House misrepresented the comments of those officials.
- President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
As the attached video shows, the White House tweet left out an important qualifier. Comey said Clapper was "right" to say that there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign contained in the declassified report released Jan. 6 on Russian activities during the 2016 presidential election.
Clapper made his remarks about the report in a "Meet the Press" interview on March 5, when he was asked whether there were "improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials."
"We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, 'our,' that's NSA, FBI and CIA, with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians," Clapper said. "There was no evidence of that included in our report."
Clapper went on to say "at the time, we had no evidence of such collusion." But he added, "This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government."
Clapper also said, "I do think, though, it is in everyone's interest, in the current president's interests, in the Democrats' interests, in the Republican interest, in the country's interest, to get to the bottom of all this."
"Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd asked, "You admit your report that you released in January doesn't get to the bottom of this?"
"It did - well, it got to the bottom of the evidence to the extent of the evidence we had at the time," Clapper said. "Whether there is more evidence that's become available since then, whether ongoing investigations will be revelatory, I don't know."
Asked what the Senate intelligence committee could learn through an investigation that Clapper's agency could not, Clapper replied, "Well, I think they can look at this from a broader context than we could."
On March 20, Clapper's spokesman released a statement clarifying his position:
Clapper statement, March 20: Former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper has been clear that, while he was not aware of any conclusive intelligence related to collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians prior to leaving government, he could not account for intelligence or evidence that may have been gathered since the inauguration on January 20th.
As Director Clapper has said publicly, it is in the best interest of all Americans-Republicans and Democrats alike-that we get to the bottom of an all-consuming distraction.
So Clapper did not say there was no collusion. He said there was no evidence of collusion "at the time" he left office in January. And he went on to say that he believed a Senate investigation was warranted to clear the air.
Spicer: 'That's Over'
In his press briefing, Spicer cited Clapper's and others' comments as confirmation that "there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion."
Spicer, March 20: Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so, Obama's director of national intelligence said so, and we take them at their word. ...
If you look at the acting Obama CIA director, he said that there's smoke but there's no fire. Senator Tom Cotton - "Not that I've seen and not that I'm aware of." You look at Director Clapper - "Not to my knowledge." Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware - "I have no evidence of collusion."
We've dealt with the comments from Clapper, but let's take a look at some of the other comments cited by Spicer.
Coons, press release, March 20: For Mr. Spicer's sake, let me be clear once again: Though I have not seen specific evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that suggests collusion may have occurred, including confirmation just this morning that the FBI is investigating potential collusion between the campaign and Russian officials.
Spicer, March, 20: Despite the narrative that gets played over and over again with respect to what the investigation might mean in terms of collusion, every person, Republican and Democrat, that has been briefed on it has come to the same conclusion that there is no collusion and that that's over.
But it is not over, as Comey made perfectly clear at the start of the hearing, saying that there is an "open ongoing" investigation into possible collusion between "individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government."
As for the claim that "every person, Republican and Democrat, that has been briefed on it has come to the same conclusion that there is no collusion and that that's over," that's simply not true either.
Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, is not convinced that the issue of possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government is "over."
After laying out what he later called "circumstantial evidence of coordination," Schiff said that whether the facts that raised suspicion are coincidence remains to be seen. Schiff said all the facts aren't yet known. "But we ought to, I think, we owe it to the American people to do our best to find out," he said.
Whether the FBI or congressional investigations find any evidence of wrongdoing remains to be seen. It's fair to say, as Spicer has, that as of the end of the Obama administration, intelligence officials had said they were not aware of any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But Spicer goes too far when he portrays those comments as evidence that it's "over." Clapper and Coons, for example, both said the matter warrants further investigation.
In a series of tweets, the White House insinuated that Obama and/or his aides were responsible for illegally leaking classified information in an attempt to damage the new president and his administration.
In one tweet, the White House said, "FBI Director Comey admits Obama's White House had ability to 'unmask' American citizens." The tweet included a clip of Comey explaining that White House officials can ask an intelligence agency to "unmask," or identify, the names of "U.S. persons" caught up in surveillance operations. Intelligence agencies protect the identity of such people by referring to them in reports as "U.S. person number one" or "U.S. person number two," Comey said. Only the agency that collected the intelligence can "unmask" a U.S person, but it can do so at the request of the White House, Comey said.
In another tweet, the White House posted a clip of Comey saying leaks to the media have been "unusually active."
Spicer elaborated on the tweets in a daily press briefing after the House hearing. Spicer opened his briefing by pointing reporters to "new information that came from the hearing that we believe is newsworthy about the intelligence-gathering process and the unmasking of Americans identified in intelligence reports."
In particular, the White House suggested that Comey told Obama that Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn had conversations in late December with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions imposed by Obama in response to Russia's attempts to influence the election. After Trump took office, Flynn became White House national security advisor, but he was forced to resign on Feb. 14 when details of his discussions with the Russian ambassador became public. The leak about Flynn's phone calls regarding the sanctions directly contradicted his earlier public denials that he never spoke to Kislyak about the sanctions.
In yet another tweet, the White House said, "FBI Director Comey refuses to deny that he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia."
The tweet (see below) included a video of Rep. Trey Gowdy asking Comey if he met with Obama to discuss Flynn's phone calls. Comey responded by saying, "I'm not going to get into either that particular case, that matter, or any conversations I had with the president, so I can't answer that."
FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia. pic.twitter.com/cUZ5KgBSYP
- President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
At his briefing, Spicer said, "Not only was General Flynn's identity made available, Director Comey refused to answer the question of whether or not he'd actually briefed President Obama on his phone calls and activities."
But the fact that Comey would not answer the question about Flynn is not evidence of anything. Comey throughout the five-hour hearing repeatedly refused to talk about any "U.S. persons," including Flynn, so the White House is making a leap to imply that Comey's response was in any way meaningful.
In his opening remarks, Comey told the committee (at the 32:15 mark): "Please don't draw any conclusions from the fact that I may not be able to comment on certain topics. I know speculating is part of human nature but it really isn't fair to draw conclusions simply because I say that I can't comment."
In addition to refusing to discuss Flynn, Comey also declined to answer leading questions from Democrats about Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign chairman, and Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser. Both men reportedly have business ties to Russia, as the Democrats mentioned at the hearing.
In response to a question about Manafort ( at the 1:38:10 mark), Comey responded, "Mr. Himes, I really don't wanna get into answering questions about any individual U.S. person." Later in the hearing, Comey also declined to comment (at the 3:08:00 mark) when Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier asked Comey if he knows what Caputo is doing today. "I am not going to talk about U.S. persons," Comey said.
Despite these and other examples of Comey declining to comment, the White House did exactly what the FBI director warned against: drawing implications based on topics that Comey said he cannot discuss.
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Trump, Donald (@POTUS). President of the United States. " The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process." Tweet. 9:42 a.m. 20 Mar 2017.
Trump, Donald (@POTUS). President of the United States. " FBI Director Comey admits Obama's White House had ability to 'unmask' American citizens." Tweet. 10:45 a.m. 20 Mar 2017.
Trump, Donald (@POTUS). President of the United States. " FBI Director Comey says classified leaks to the media have been 'unusually active' recently." Tweet. 10:26 a.m. 20 Mar 2017.
Trump, Donald (@POTUS). President of the United States. " FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia." Tweet. 9:33 a.m. 20 Mar 2017.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). President of the United States. " James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it! " Tweet. 3:35 a.m. 20 Mar 2017.
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