Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. AFP photo
The bitter dispute over President Trump’s claims he was wire-tapped by the Obama administration and counter-accusations that his aides colluded with Russia during the election took another twist on Wednesday night.
A CNN report said the FBI believes President Donald Trump’s associates were in communication with suspected Russian operatives possibly to coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton during the election campaign.
The cable news network quotes anonymous US government officials as saying that the bureau has information that suggests links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, though the sources stress that the evidence unearthed so far is ‘not conclusive.’
The fact that the claims are being made on CNN is only likely to intensify the president’s conflict with the network he has called ‘fake news’ and lead to further accusations that it is acting as the opposition to Trump.
And they come against the background of a bitter and now nakedly partisan dispute on the House Intelligence Committee over interactions with Russia which boiled over on Wednesday afternoon into an ugly public dispute between the Republican chair and the Democratic ranking member.
One source is cited by CNN as saying that this information is what FBI Director James Comey was referring to in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday.
Comey told lawmakers on Monday that the FBI had come across ‘a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.’
The bureau is now sifting through phone records, travel documents, and human intelligence material in an effort to conclusively determine if laws were broken by individuals with links to Trump’s campaign.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on Wednesday that there is ‘more than circumstantial’ evidence of links between the Trump campaign and Russia – a statement backed up by anonymous US officials who told CNN that new information suggests possible collusion
The White House has denied any wrongdoing by the campaign.
‘People connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready,’ CNN quoted one source as saying.
But other officials threw cold water on the circumstantial evidence, saying that it was premature to make inferences from the information gathered.
US intelligence agencies believe that the Russian government was behind the hacking and release of emails belonging to senior Democratic Party officials, including the senior echelons of Clinton’s campaign.
There is consensus among US intelligence officials that the aim of the hacks was to aid Trump’s candidacy.
Trump Tower CREDIT: EPA
Thus far, four individuals involved in Trump’s campaign – former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, national security adviser Michael Flynn, and confidante Roger Stone – have been investigated by the FBI for alleged ties to Russia.
All of them deny any wrongdoing.
Paul Manafort CREDIT: AP
The latest revelations by CNN appear to bolster statements made earlier on Wednesday by the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Adam Schiff told MSNBC’s MTP Daily that the evidence currently in the hands of intelligence officials are ‘more than circumstantial’ and ‘very much worthy of investigation,’ though he said he could not get into specific.
Schiff blasted his GOP counterpart, asking whether the panel’s Russia probe can function after chairman Rep. Devin Nunes briefed Trump on new snooping developments.
Schiff, a California Democrat who works closely with Nunes, called the Republicans’ debrief of Trump at the White House Wednesday ‘deeply troubling,’ and demanded the creation of an independent Russia probe.
House Democrats condemn Nunes for ‘undermining’ intel probe
Schiff was blindsided when Nunes went to tell Trump that intelligence intercepts picked up Trump transition members – as well as Trump himself – seeming to substantiate the president’s claims this month.
‘The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to at as a surrogate of the White House – because he cannot do both,’ Schiff fumed at a Capitol Hill press conference.
‘This is deeply troubling along many levels. The most significant level is it really impedes our ability to do this investigation the way we should,’ he added.
He declined to get into specifics about the documents Nunes saw – because he said Nunes hadn’t shared them with him or with Republican members of the committee yet.
‘We have no idea where these documents came from, whether they even show what they purport to show,’ he said. He raised the possibility that Nunes brought up the information as a way to help Trump back up his Twitter claim of 19 days ago that President Obama had his phones ‘tapped’ at Trump Tower – something the head of the FBI and Nunes himself has said didn’t happen.
His admonishment was a departure from the normally collegial panel, where the leaders are known as ‘chairman’ and ‘vice chairman’ and share the nation’s top secrets.
Nunes confirms intelligence was collected on Trump transition team
Earlier on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. David Nunes (R-Cal) told President Trump that there was ‘incidental’ surveillance of Trump aides unrelated to Russia
Nunes would not say how Trump transition officials were caught up in the surveillance – and whether any of them work at the White House
‘But even if they do, on the basis of what the chairman said, the underlying fact is still the same: There’s no evidence to support the president’s contention that he was wiretapped by his predecessor,’ said Schiff.
‘So I’m not sure what the point of this extraordinary process is. And I have to hope that this is not part of a broader campaign by the White House aimed to deflect from the [FBI] director’s testimony earlier this week.’
Schiff suggested that the House Intelligence could be a casualty of Trump’s tweets – bringing up an angry clash with the British government over alleged spy cooperation that the British say didn’t happen.
HAPPIER TIMES? Chairman Devin Nunes of California (R) and Ranking Member Adam Schiff listen to testimony during hearings on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election and alleged hacking allegations during a House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday
‘If the incident today is an indication that, after making the baseless claim, the president then aggravated the damage by implicating the British in a potential plot to have the British surveil him on behalf of President Obama, and now is attempting to interfere in the congressional investigation – again, with the effort of trying to provide some substance to a claim without substance – then the damage the wrecking ball of this allegation has just claimed another victim, that being our own committee,’ he said.
‘I only learned about this the way that all of you did, when the chairman briefed the press in advance of briefing his own committee members,’ said Schiff.
The president told White House reporters that he feels ‘somewhat’ vindicated after hearing what Nunes had to say this afternoon. The congressman came to the White House this afternoon to give Trump an in-person briefing
Schiff also blasted Nunes in a blistering written statement. ”If accurate, this information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been,’ Schiff said.
‘The Chairman also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation. I have expressed my grave concerns with the Chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.’
Nunes defended himself from the charges he might have acted improperly in an appearance on CNN about an hour before Schiff spoke.
He said the information ‘concerned me enough to have to notify the president because it was him and his transition team that were involved in this,’ he said.
‘It’s not fair for him not to know what’s in these reports,’ added Nunes.
‘President-elect Trump and his team were put into intelligence reports,’ Nunes told the network. He mentioned ‘dozens’ of intercepts. ‘Clearly there was surveillance that was conducted.’
But he didn’t back off his earlier statement that Trump was not subjected to wiretapping at Trump Tower.
FBI Director James Comey. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Schiff’s frustration followed Republican committee chairman Devin Nunes’ decision to brief the House speaker; the CIA, NSA and FBI chiefs; the White House; and the Washington press corps about a cache of intelligence reports in his possession – without sharing them with fellow committee members.
Nunes told reporters on Capitol Hill that the US Intelligence Community collected ‘incidental’ information about President Donald Trump and his transition team during the three months following the 2016 election.
He said the information collected was ‘legally collected’ pursuant to a warrant issued by a FISA judge in a federal court, and concerned ‘foreign’ surveillance.
But that ‘did not involve Russia or any discussions with Russians,’ and there’s no reason to believe anyone in Trump’s circle was the target of an investigation.
The president told journalists that he feels ‘somewhat’ vindicated after hearing what Nunes had to say.
Trump has been fighting Democrats’ charges that he lied on March 4 when he claimed Barack Obama ‘wire tapped’ him last year.
President Obama’s Director of national Intelligence James Clapper
‘I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found. I somewhat do,’ he said shortly after a meeting with Nunes.
Nunes told NBC he wasn’t currently able to show the information to Schiff because he and the committee don’t have the documents in their possession.
He said he was waiting for an intelligence official to send over the reports, which he said he was shown by a ‘source.’
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Nunes’ statements ‘would appear to have revealed classified intelligence.’
Schiff refused to make the same charged when asked whether Nunes had revealed classified information.