The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate Intel chiefs promise investigation of Trump-Russia ties as House Democrats accuse FBI director of stonewalling

Democrats are furious with FBI Director James Comey for refusing to say whether the FBI is probing alleged ties between president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders announced late Friday that they would look into allegations of links between Russia and the 2016 political campaigns as part of a broader review of the intelligence community’s report on Russian hacking.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that their investigation, announced on Tuesday, would review “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” — a scope that includes allegations of ties between president-elect Donald J. Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.

Their announcement came as additional House Democrats called for FBI Director James B. Comey’s resignation, following a closed-door briefing from spy chiefs about Russia’s alleged election-related hacking in which they say Comey stonewalled members about whether the FBI is investigating links between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.

Democrats accused Comey of being “inconsistent” for refusing to confirm or deny whether or not the FBI was investigating the alleged ties, despite his willingness to frequently update Congress on the status of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. They described the exchange with Comey as “contentious” and even “combative,” while leaders accused him of using a double standard.

“One standard was applied to the Russians and another standard applied to Hillary Clinton,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who one member described as “just outraged” at Comey’s resistance to questions.

Pelosi “really let Comey have it” during the meeting, the member said, who spoke on background because the meeting was classified.

Justice Department opens new inquiry into Comey letter (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders excoriated Comey for his stubbornness, but stopped short of calling for his head — pressing the FBI director to take up an investigation into what “leverage” Russia might have over Trump, even as they questioned Comey’s integrity.

“I think the American people are owed the truth,” Pelosi said. “And for that reason, the FBI should let us know whether they’re doing that investigation or not.”

Democrats have been leaning into Comey to commit to an investigation of Trump’s alleged ties to the Russian government after new, unsubstantiated allegations emerged suggesting the existence of compromising personal and financial links between the president-elect and the Kremlin.

Earlier this week, Burr had previously expressed doubts that the Senate Intelligence Committee would be able to investigate such allegations, according to reports, because the committee lacks the authority to compel information from the campaigns.

But if the committee investigates potential Trump-Russia ties by probing the information the intelligence community already collected, they can get around that hurdle, a committee aide explained late Friday.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s panel on crime and terrorism, would not say Thursday whether he would also investigate alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia from that perch, deferring that question to the FBI.

“If there were contacts that are unnerving, time will tell,” Graham said.

House Democrats, however, are already unnerved by the posturing of the FBI director, whom many suspect of political bias for how he handled the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Some of those previously willing to give Comey the benefit of the doubt said Friday that his performance during the classified briefing eviscerated their faith in his ability to lead the agency going forward.

“He should pack his things and go,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), expressing concerns that Comey “will continue to erode the credibility of the FBI in the eyes of the public” if he stays on as FBI director.

Prior to the meeting, “I had not even considered joining the call for his resignation,” Johnson said, but decided that “I don’t have confidence in this man to lead the FBI in the coming weeks and months ahead, with all the work that must be done to get to the bottom of Russian hacking into our electoral process.”

Several rank-and-file Democrats had called for Comey’s resignation after he alerted Congress about new emails potentially related to the Clinton investigation in late October, arguing that it was too close to the election for him to take such a step. Some argued that Comey was politically biased and inconsistent, as weeks before, he had refused to sign onto the Obama administration’s assessment that Russia was behind a series of hacks of the Democratic National Committee, claiming it was too close to the election to make such a politically-charged accusation.

Comey was not the only spy chief to brief the House Friday: he was joined by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., CIA Director John Brennan, and Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. That same quartet briefed the full Senate on Thursday.

But Johnson said the “frustration” he and others felt after Friday’s briefing “boiled down to Jim Comey” and “his handling of the email controversy, coupled with the discovery by the FBI of Russian hacking into democratic institutions…and what happened between the time of discovery and the period after the election.”

Comey drew a distinction between the investigations during public testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, when he told Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) that “we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.” Comey was responding to a question about whether the FBI was investigating any connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Comey said his decision to tell Congress in late October that the FBI was looking into new emails related to their probe of Clinton’s private server was different because that investigation was closed.

King described Comey’s argument for why he wouldn’t disclose whether the FBI was digging into Trump-Russia ties as “irony.”

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) likened Comey’s posture during Friday’s briefing to that Tuesday exchange with King.

“Senator King found that ironic,” Schiff said. “I think there are many members who would use stronger language than that.”

For his own part, Schiff said he “didn’t find [Comey’s] argument very persuasive,” adding that Comey seemed to be “very flexible” with his terminology in describing Clinton’s case.

“The Clinton investigation seemed both open and closed at the same time,” Schiff said. “So I don’t think that distinction holds up.”

While he stopped short of calling for Comey’s resignation, Schiff said “there are profound questions raised about whether the director can restore the credibility that has been lost” and that “it’s an open question” whether he could restore the credibility.

House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) struck a similar tone about Comey’s continued tenure as FBI director.

“I think this is a point in the FBI’s history where we’ve got to have a mirror put up to the organization to make sure it maintains its credibility and that it is the elite of the elite,” Cummings said.

As to whether Comey was fit to continue leading the bureau, Cummings said that “before…there was no jury in my mind. Now there is a jury in my mind, and the jury is out.”

But many Democrats who claim to have already lost faith in Comey believe it’s better to keep the flawed FBI director in office than whomever Trump might pick to replace him.

“What I heard in the briefing made me not trust him,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said, noting that he had tried to give Comey the benefit of the doubt before the briefing. “It’s not that I don’t think he should step down or not, it’s just that I don’t trust the Trump administration to appoint somebody that would be any better.”

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.