WASHINGTON: The man who took over from ousted FBI Director James Comey declined to say on Thursday whether he ever heard Comey tell Donald Trump that the president was not a target of an investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe also pledged that he would inform the panel of any effort by the White House or others to interfere with the agency’s probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
McCabe testified in place of Comey, who Trump dismissed as FBI director on Tuesday in an action that has roiled Washington. Democrats have accused the Republican president of trying to foil the FBI’s probe into Russian meddling.
Republican Committee Chairman Richard Burr asked McCabe whether he ever heard Comey tell Trump the president was not the subject of investigation. McCabe sidestepped the question, saying he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
In his letter firing Comey on Tuesday, Trump wrote, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a January report that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to disrupt the election that included hacking into Democratic Party emails and leaking them, with the aim of helping Trump.
Leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, testifying on Thursday said they agreed with that finding. Moscow has denied any such interference and the Trump administration denies allegations of collusion with Russia.
Thursday’s hearing was scheduled to address global security threats, but there were frequent questions about Comey and the FBI’s Russia probe. Several congressional panels are also investigating Russia’s role in the election.
The Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner, said in light of Comey’s firing, “It is important to restate the critical importance of protecting the independence and integrity of federal law enforcement.”
The firing has made the committee’s investigation into Russia’s influence on the presidential election even more important, Warner added.
“And while it’s clear to me now more than ever that an independent special counsel must be appointed, make so mistake our committee will get to the bottom of what happened during the 2016 presidential election,” Warner said.
Democrats have ramped up calls for an independent investigation into the Russia issue, and some Republicans in Congress have also said they were concerned about the timing of the move. Republicans control both chambers in Congress.
“We will not be deterred from getting to the truth. These actions will do nothing to undermine our resolve to follow the evidence where ever it leads,” Warner added, although he said he was not happy with the pace of the committee’s probe.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley called on the FBI to publicly confirm whether or not it is probing Trump.
In a statement, Grassley said that Comey had previously briefed him and the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and that the lawmakers “heard nothing that contradicted the president’s statement.”
Trump is weighing a visit to the FBI’s Washington headquarters in coming days to address agents, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CBS News.
The Trump administration has said Comey’s firing was unrelated to the Russia investigation.
Former Republican congressman Mike Rogers is being considered as a candidate to replace Comey, a senior White House official said.—Reuters