FBI director James Comey has publicly confirmed for the first time that the agency has been investigating possible links between Donald Trump’s election team and Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 US election.
Mr Comey said the investigation includes the nature of any links between individuals associated with Mr Trump‘s campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any co-ordination between Russian efforts and the campaign.
The investigation will also look at whether crimes were committed.
Confirming the existence of an ‘open, ongoing investigation’ into links, Mr Comey told the House Intelligence Committee: “This work is very complex, and there is no way for me to give you a timetable for when it will be done.”
Under questioning from the committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff, he also publicly contradicted a series of tweets from Mr Trump which declared the Republican candidate’s phones had been ordered tapped by then-president Barack Obama during the campaign.
“I have no confirmation that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” he said.
Devin Nunes, a California Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, also rejected the assertion earlier in the hearing.
Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency who was answering questions alongside Mr Comey, also confirmed the NSA had not asked Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to spy on Mr Trump – despite repeated claims by the White House.
“That would be expressly against the construct of the five-eyes agreement that’s been in place for decades,” he said
Mr Trump took to Twitter before the hearing began, accusing Democrats of making up allegations about his campaign associates’ contact with Russia during the election.
He said Congress and the FBI should be going after media leaks – and maybe even Hillary Clinton – instead.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” Mr Trump tweeted early on Monday as news coverage on the Russia allegations dominated news bulletins.
James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 20 March 2017
The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 20 March 2017
America’s former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, condemned President Trump’s tweets, describing them as “very dangerous”.
Mr McFaul said: “This statement is very dangerous. Means that Trump will do absolutely nothing to make changes to protect the integrity of future elections.”
He added: “The Russians attacked us last year. They violated our sovereignty. Meddled in our elections. And our president denies it. Very scary.”
During the committee hearing, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asked what, if anything, Russia had done in the 2016 election campaign Admiral Rogers replied:
“The biggest difference was both the use of cyber hacking to gain access to information and then make it widely publicly available without any alteration
Mr Comey added: “They were usually loud in their intervention. It was almost as if they didn’t care that we knew what they were or that they want ed us to see what they were doing.”
The director also acknowledged that the FBI does not ordinarily discuss ongoing investigations, but said he has been authorised to do so given the extreme public interest in this case.
What are the accusations?
Claims have been made that Vladimir Putin and Moscow colluded with the Trump administration during the 2016 election to get him into the White House. President Trump has also claimed in recent weeks that Trump Tower was under surveillance by the Obama administration – something that the Obama team has denied, and Trump has provided no evidence of.
Are the claims false?
No one can yet say – but there has been contact between Russia and Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor. He was forced to resign in February over his communications with the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, and for failing to give an accurate account of them in public or to Vice President Mike Pence. Their conversations, intercepted by US authorities, showed that had discussed punitive measures imposed on Russia by the outgoing Obama administration.
Who is being questioned?
FBI director James Comey is appearing before the inquiry and denied Trump’s wiretapping claims – something he has already reportedly told members of Congress already. John Brennan, the Obama administration’s CIA director, former acting attorney general Sally Yates and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, will also take to the stand to provide evidence and testimonies.
Why is James Comey speaking?
Comey was appointed FBI director by Barack Obama in 2013 and therefore in charge during the period that Trump claims he was being wiretapped. His announcement of fresh evidence in the Hillary Clinton email scandal just two weeks before the election is also thought to have been a decisive factor in seeing her lose the election.
Why is his evidence so notable?
It is fair to say that a US President doesn’t often contradict the claims made by an FBI director – but if Comey shoots down any theory that Trump was under surveillance, there would be an official record of their conflicting views.
What will happen next?
The issue of Russian meddling is not going to disappear, with intelligence agencies expected to to continue their investigations for months or years – possibly with no eventual conclusion being made as to whether the claims are true or false.
Top pic: Rex