Guest Opinion: Comey owes Americans an answer
Questions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election have evolved into a cluster of allegations — wiretaps, national security leaks, British spying in America. … It’s all so unwieldy as to defy conventional scandal-mongering: The cluster doesn’t even have a name, a la Watergate, Whitewater or Benghazi.
In a televised congressional hearing Monday, FBI Director James Comey made progress in condensing the narrative. Comey confirmed the real and serious focus of the investigation. Comey told members of the House intelligence committee that the FBI is investigating Russian efforts to monkey with the election. Here was riveting testimony, though lacking details or, of course, a conclusion. Comey said the investigation includes looking at any possible links between people associated with the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government, “and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Comey’s kicker: “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
What about some of those other allegations orbiting the investigation that have been promoted by the White House? Recall that Trump rattled the windows recently with a series of outlandish tweets from Mar-a-Lago accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping him at Trump Tower during the run-up to the election. He cited no evidence. As a follow-on, White House spokesman Sean Spicer repeated an unsubstantiated report that if Obama subordinates weren’t directly responsible for bugging Trump, it may have been their friends in British intelligence. The Brits blew a gasket, calling the allegation “utterly ridiculous.”
In their testimony Monday, Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers rejected those possibilities so swiftly that the president should be embarrassed for dwelling on his accusations. Comey said, “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI.” The Department of Justice had the same answer, Comey added.
Rogers was asked about the White House’s additional supposition that maybe British intelligence was responsible? He scoffed, saying it would expressly violate intelligence-sharing agreements that have been in place for decades among the U.S., the U.K. and several other allies. Rogers also said: “I’ve seen nothing on the NSA side that we engage in any such activity nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity.”
A few sober, carefully constrained statements by Comey and Rogers won’t put an end to the circus. There’s too much politics and not enough facts. Comey made clear he wouldn’t discuss details of an ongoing investigation — just acknowledging its existence is unusual enough.
Leave it to the pols, then, to grandstand their way through Monday’s hearing. Some Democrats want to go after Trump’s tax returns. Some Republicans want to focus on whether government officials broke the law by leaking information to reporters, since a part of this mega-story involves the question of how former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador came to light. The White House won’t let go either: “Must find leaker now!” Trump tweeted Monday morning. Spicer said much the same Monday afternoon. Their actions amount to a carnival sideshow meant to deflect attention. Trump’s obsession damages his credibility as America’s leader.
The part of this spectacle that matters the most is the part Comey is focused on: whether Russian attempts to help defeat Hillary Clinton involved collusion with anyone associated with Trump’s campaign. It’s a question that, for now, has no answer. But it is what’s best for this country.