FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday refused to say whether his bureau was investigating any possible ties between Russia and the Donald Trump's presidential campaign, citing policy not to comment on what the FBI might or might not be doing.
Comey testified at the Senate's second hearing in a week addressing allegations of Russian election hacking. In late October he angered Democrats when he announced 11 days before the election that the FBI was looking at more emails as part of its investigation of Hillary Clinton.
"I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum like this so I can't answer one way or another," Comey told the Senate's intelligence committee during his first public appearance before Congress since the unusual disclosure about Clinton.
"The irony of your making that statement, I cannot avoid," said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent.
Insisted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., "The American people have the right to know this."
It wasn't clear if Wyden was alluding to an investigation that may be classified, or if his questioning was an effort to cast Trump in a negative light shortly before the inauguration.
Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote two letters to the FBI last year before the election, asking the bureau to publicly disclose what it knew about Trump's aides' ties to Russia.
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An active FBI investigation of the next president for ties between his campaign and a nation accused of meddling in the presidential election could further stoke mistrust in the legitimacy of the democratic process. It would also put Trump's own FBI in the awkward position of examining the conduct of those closest to the commander-in-chief.
The FBI was among three U.S. intelligence agencies that collaborated on last week's report on Russia's election activity. It tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to the hacking of email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. It said there was no evidence the Russians tampered with vote tallies; the agencies said they couldn't assess if Russia succeeded in influencing Americans to vote for Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who opposed Trump in the GOP primary, said Russia's activity wasn't guided by its support for Trump, but rather "to influence and to potentially manipulate American public opinion for the purpose of discrediting individual political figures, sowing chaos and division in our politics, sowing doubts about the legitimacy of our elections."
Democrats at the committee hearing focused their toughest questions on Comey, who was widely criticized for breaking FBI policy in his decision to notify Congress about additional information that came up related to Clinton. He is in the fourth year of a 10-year term, meaning he is expected to stay on in the Trump administration.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Comey set a new standard by discussing the bureau's activity related to Clinton's private email server. That standard, she said, is the FBI discusses ongoing investigations when there is a "unique public interest in the transparency of that issue."
The intelligence agencies' findings on Russian hacking fit that standard, she argued.
"I'm not sure I can think of an issue of more serious public interest than this one," Harris said. "This committee needs to understand what the FBI does and does not know about campaign communications with Russia."
Sitting beside Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, "Fair point."
The report lacked details about how the U.S. learned what it says it knows, such as any intercepted conversations or electronic messages from Russian leaders, including Putin. It also said nothing about specific hacker techniques or digital tools the U.S. may have traced back to Russia in its investigations.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday the Kremlin believes the U.S. accusations of election hacking have no substance. He called them "amateurish."
The New York Times reports that at the Senate Intelligence committee hearing, Comey admitted that Russian hackers had access to the Republican National Committee's computer records. He told lawmakers that the hack was a "limited penetration of old RNC" computers that were "no longer in use."
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia provided the emails to WikiLeaks. The website's founder, Julian Assange, has denied that is the case, but Democratic and Republican members of Congress have largely backed the accusation and many have demanded a sterner response than Obama has ordered.
Obama struck back at Moscow in late December with penalties aimed at Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the U.S. said were involved in the hacking. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
On Monday, the U.S. levied economic sanctions against five Russians in connection to a 2012 U.S. law punishing Russian human rights violators. Americans are now banned from doing business with the men and any assets they may have in the United States are now frozen.
The most prominent individual targeted by the new sanctions is Alexander Bastrykin, who heads Russia's main investigative agency and is close to Putin. The two attended the same university together.