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FBI Director Comey: FBI probes possible Russia-Trump associates ties

FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security

FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Monday, March 20, 2017. Photo Credit: AP

WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey on Monday confirmed publicly for the first time that his bureau is probing Russian meddling into last year’s election — searching also for any links or possible coordination between the Kremlin and the campaign of President Donald Trump.

The reveal came at the start of a five-hour congressional hearing at which Comey also disputed Trump’s claim via Twitter that his predecessor had wiretapped Trump Tower.

“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey testified.

The House Intelligence Committee hearing was held to explore Moscow’s influence in the campaign season more broadly, questioning Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers. Both intelligence officials said Russia is an adversary.

Though chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) were unified in their condemnation of Russian interference in the American democratic process, other lines of questioning broke along party lines.

Nunes and Republicans shone a spotlight on illegally leaked information from the intelligence community to the news media.

Schiff and Democrats focused on the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Trump repeatedly has denounced reports of his campaign working with Russia as “fake news” perpetuated by Democrats in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of his election. He tweeted both sentiments Monday before the hearing.

Comey said the Department of Justice authorized him to disclose the ongoing probe, which began last July.

The Kremlin sought a Trump victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, he said. “They wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him,” Comey said.

In response, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stressed that no evidence has emerged of the Trump team’s collaboration with Russia, citing supporting statements from former officials of President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Nothing has changed . . . We take them at their word,” Spicer said of officials including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The spokesman, meanwhile, held fast to Trump’s charge in a March 4 flurry of tweets that accused Obama of wiretapping and “McCarthyism.”

Trump is not ready to withdraw his allegation or apologize to Obama because the hearing process is “still ongoing,” Spicer said.

Nunes at the hearing said he saw no proof of “physical wiretapping,” but did not rule out other methods of surveillance.

At the White House on Monday, Trump hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who joked, “We had nothing to do with the wiretap.”

Schiff at the hearing listed Trump advisers who have been linked to Russian interest groups.

Spicer sought to distance Trump from the individuals.

Roger Stone and Carter Page were “hangers-on,” Spicer said.

Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who reportedly had connections to the pro-Russian former Ukrainian president, had a “very limited role for a very limited amount of time,” Spicer said.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was a “volunteer of the campaign,” Spicer said, when he received payments from Russian-linked firms.

The press secretary directed reporters’ attention to Comey’s testimony about the high volume of intelligence leaks.

The FBI director said leakers have been “unusually active,” adding that those feeding classified information to journalists weren’t necessarily in the know and many news reports have been “dead wrong.”

Comey said leaks should be aggressively investigated.

“I’ve never seen such a sustained period of leaks,” Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a committee member, said at the hearing.

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