By Patricia Zengerle and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI chief publicly challenged US President Donald Trump on Monday, denying the Republican’s claim that former President Barack Obama intervened in his 2016 election campaign and confirming that his agency had launched a criminal investigation into any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. .
FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing that he had seen no evidence to support Trump’s claim that Obama had eavesdropped on the phone at his campaign headquarters in Manhattan’s Trump Tower.
The president created a controversy in early March when he tweeted without giving evidence that Obama had heard the campaign when the businessman faced Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
“Regarding the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the previous administration, I have no information to support those tweets,” Comey said at the House Intelligence Committee hearing.
The committee is investigating allegations that Russia tried to influence the election primarily by hacking the emails of Democratic operatives and spreading embarrassing information. Russia denies the accusations.
Comey confirmed that the FBI has been investigating since last July possible efforts by the Russian government to interfere in the elections, including any link between the Trump campaign and Moscow. He said that while the Russian government wanted to damage the Clinton campaign and help Trump, intelligence agencies did not judge whether the efforts influenced the outcome.
Comey did not elaborate on the classified investigation, saying that just because it exists does not mean charges are filed.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to help Trump by hacking top Democrats. Comey said Moscow had long opposed Trump’s electoral rival, former Secretary of State Clinton.
“I think it was a pretty easy trial for the (intelligence) community,” he said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the other side of the coin was that he had a clear preference for the person who stood up to the person he hated so much.”
When asked about Comey, White House spokesman Sean Spicer read a series of quotes from officials, some from the Obama administration, who have said they have seen no signs of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In a tweet before the hearing, Trump wrote: “Democrats invented and promoted Russian history as an excuse to run a terrible campaign.”
Spicer said he was not aware that any White House official was being investigated by the FBI.
Trump has frequently urged improving relations with Russia, which has been at odds with the United States in recent years over Moscow’s role in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, detailed the activities of Trump’s advisers or associates with ties to Russia, including former election campaign manager Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who was ousted as Trump’s national security adviser afterward. to speak to the Russian ambassador and then twist the conversation to Vice President Mike Pence.
“Is it possible that all these events and reports are not related at all and are nothing more than a completely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” said Schiff. “But it is also possible, perhaps more than possible, that they are not a coincidence, they are not disconnected and they are not related.”
Trump’s March 4 tweet about wiretapping, which was made without supporting evidence, diverted attention from claims of Russian election interference. He made the claim two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States last fall, said he would withdraw from any investigation into Russian election interference.
Trump and his advisers have maintained in recent weeks that their wiretapping claims were intended to signify surveillance of the Trump campaign in general, but the White House has provided no surveillance evidence of any kind.
Last week, Trump’s spokesman cited a media report that Britain’s spy agency GCHQ was behind the surveillance, sparking ridicule in Britain.
The head of the US National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, said at Monday’s hearing that the indictment had strained relations with London.
“I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours,” Rogers said.
Comey warned that Russia would try to influence the upcoming US presidential elections in 2020 and perhaps the congressional elections next year. “They will return in 2020. They may return in 2018,” he said.
The hearing was a rare open Congressional intelligence committee hearing and revealed a sharp partisan divide in approach. Most Republicans focused their questions on leaks of classified information, a concern Trump mentions frequently, and media reports on topics such as contacts between Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russian officials.
Democrats tried to highlight those links and reject Trump’s wiretapping claim.