Not surprisingly, it has been a busy week for the highest-profile investigations into Russian interference in the election and ties to the Trump campaign. The biggest story this week was the closely watched testimony given by former FBI director James Comey at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Other developments this week include minor announcements from the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as revelations about FBI leadership and the expansion of DoJ special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team.
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence held back-to-back hearings this week, first on June 7 with Dan Coats and Mike Rogers, the Director of National Intelligence and Director of the NSA, respectively, and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe. This hearing was followed by Comey’s on June 8.
The focus of the June 7 hearing was whether President Trump had asked Coats and Rogers to intervene in or undermine the FBI’s ongoing investigation. Report of this have been circled by the media since Comey’s dismissal, but both intelligence directors decline to comment on any interactions with the president and/or Comey. They said they had never felt pressure regarding the FBI investigation, but neither would specifically deny contents of the recent reports. McCabe responded similarly. The testimonies implied concerns over possible invocations of executive privilege (the mechanism by which the president can block congressional testimony), as well as concerns about publicly releasing information which could interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
In contrast, Comey’s highly anticipated testimony the following day answered many questions and prompted many more. Prior to his hearing, Comey released a written testimony in which he outlined his conversations with the president leading up to his dismissal. Comey testified that President Trump had repeatedly asked him to stay in his position, asked for his loyalty, implicitly directed him to stop investigating Flynn, and eventually fired him because of the investigation. Comey told the committee that the reasons the White House gave for his dismissal, including his conduct during the election and his mismanagement of the FBI, were lies and cause of confusion and concern. Perhaps one of the most concerning parts of Comey’s testimony was his description of the conversation he had with Trump, in which Trump told AG Jeff Sessions (Comey’s boss) and other top officials to leave the room before asking Comey to ‘let Flynn go.’ This secrecy could imply that the president knew his request was inappropriate. Another major revelation was that Comey wrote an unclassified personal memo following that conversation, which he gave to a friend to give to the press, in the hopes that the ensuing public outcry would prompt the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation.
Comey’s hearing shed more light on the circumstances surrounding the early stages of his investigation and his interactions with the president, but it was also swayed by partisan lines of questioning. Many senators focused their questions on the particularities of the president’s wording, and the question of Comey’s repeated assurances to Trump that he was not personally under investigation. The White House strongly refutes Comey’s testimony. The committee certainly learned more from the closed part of the hearing, and the conclusions they draw from the testimony remain to be seen. One significant point made during the hearing was that the Senate Intelligence Committee still doesn’t have physical copies of Comey’s memos, and is very eager to get them. In a broader frame, Comey underscored the necessity of a truly independent investigation into Russian intervention; he said confidently that this is neither the first nor the last time Russia will try to interfere in other nations’ political processes.
Looking ahead, the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue to review information from its hearings this week, as well as the subpoenaed documents obtained last week from Michael Flynn. Senators Burr and Warner are expected to meet with Mueller sometime in the next week to discuss how the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation will proceed, and avoid interfering with the DoJ’s criminal probe. In his hearing, Comey said he thought the two would be able to carry out parallel investigations successfully.
DoJ and Special Counsel
The Department of Justice investigation led by special counsel Mueller remains largely hidden from public view, but had a few noteworthy developments this week. One interesting update is the recent news that Mueller had been one of the Trump White House’s candidates to replace Comey as FBI director, before deputy AG Rod Rosenstein offered him the special counsel appointment. Mueller apparently met with DoJ and White House officials about FBI leadership before he was tapped to lead the Russia investigation.
In the past few weeks, Mueller has been expanding his investigative team, bringing in respected and experienced lawyers and investigators. Most notably he recently included Andrew Weissmann, who led the DoJ’s criminal fraud unit and whose record includes leading investigations into Enron and members of the mafia. Weissmann is expected to contribute valuable experience tracking money and fraud to the DoJ investigation. Another recent addition to the team is highly respected Deputy US Solicitor General Michael Dreeben. Aaron Zebley, James Quarrels, and Jeannie Rhee are colleagues from Mueller’s law firm who are also on the team.
Mueller’s investigation is expected to continue avoiding the spotlight, and it is unlikely that many details will be leaked. Mueller does have Comey’s memos, and is reportedly also investigating obstruction of justice in relation to Comey’s firing. The scope of Mueller’s investigation is expected to be large. When he took over as special counsel, he also took over all of the existing DoJ probes regarding Russia and the Trump campaign, which include investigations into Flynn, Manafort, Page, and Kushner. Mueller has indicated that he will continue to move forward with these existing investigative trails, while also pursuing other relevant lines of questioning. Unlike the congressional investigations, Mueller’s is expected to proceed much more slowly, taking time to thoroughly review and investigate information and people before questioning anyone of interest.
In other DoJ news, on June 7 President Trump nominated Christopher Wray as the new director of the FBI. The decision was met with mixed reviews; Wray has a solid DoJ background and is seen as a moderate and fairly nonpartisan law enforcement figure. However, Wray has financial ties to Republican political campaigns, as well as legal ties to Trump affiliates and businesses.
The Other Congressional Investigations
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings took the spotlight this week, while the other congressional committees conducting Russia investigations proceeded normally. The Senate Judiciary Committee reached out to Comey’s friend at Columbia Law School, Prof. Daniel Richman, for copies of the memos that Comey had given him to give to the press. Trump’s personal lawyer for the Russia investigations said he will file complaints with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the DoJ regarding Comey’s ‘leaking’ of the memos. The House Intelligence Committee reaffirmed their commitment to their investigation, but are also trying to avoid potential conflicts with Mueller’s probe. They have asked White House Counsel Don McGahn for records of conversations between President Trump and Comey, if such tapes exist. The House Intelligence Committee also plans to hold more open hearings in the coming months, including a request for testimony from Jeh Johnson, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary under Obama, about the Russian government’s hacking of political organizations during the election.
This brief was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this brief, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.