FBI head denies Trump wiretap claim, confirms Russia election probe

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By Patricia Zengerle and Warren Strobel | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The head of the FBI publicly
challenged U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, denying the
Republican’s claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped
his 2016 election campaign and confirming his agency had
launched a criminal investigation into any collusion between
Trump’s campaign and Russia.

FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing he had
seen no evidence to support a claim by Trump that Obama had
wiretapped 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 wiretapped the
campaign as the businessman took on Democrat Hillary Clinton in
the presidential race.

“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged
wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have
no information that supports those tweets,” Comey told the House
of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing.

The committee is investigating accusations that Russia tried
to influence the election mostly by hacking Democratic
operatives’ emails and releasing embarrassing information.
Russia denies the allegations.

Comey confirmed the FBI has been investigating since last
July possible Russian government efforts to interfere in the
election, including any links between Trump’s campaign and
Moscow. He said that while the Russian government wanted to hurt
Clinton’s campaign and help Trump’s, intelligence agencies made
no judgment on whether the efforts influenced the outcome.

Comey gave no details of the classified investigation and
said the fact that it exists does not mean charges will be
filed.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried
to help Trump by hacking leading Democrats. Comey said Moscow
had long been opposed to Trump’s election rival, former
secretary of state Clinton.

“I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the
(intelligence) community,” he said. “Putin hated Secretary
Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a
clear preference for the person running against the person he
hated so much.”

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 Trump’s campaign and Russia.

In a tweet before the hearing, Trump wrote: “The Democrats
made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign.”

Spicer said he was not aware of any White House official
being under investigation by the FBI.

RUSSIAN TIES

Trump has frequently urged better 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 activities by Trump advisers or associates with ties to
Russia, including former election campaign manager Paul Manafort
and Michael Flynn, who was forced out as Trump’s national
security adviser after talking to the Russian ambassador and
then misrepresenting the conversation to Vice President Mike
Pence.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are
completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy
coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” Schiff said. “But it is also
possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not
coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”

Trump’s March 4 tweet about wiretapping, which was made
without supporting evidence, pulled attention away from the
claims of Russian interference in the election. He made the
claim two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had met
with Russia’s U.S. ambassador last fall, said he would remove
himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the
election.

Trump and his advisers have contended in recent weeks that
his claims of wiretapping were intended to mean surveillance of
the Trump campaign in general but the White House has not
provided evidence of surveillance of any kind.

Last week, Trump’s spokesman cited a media report that
Britain’s GCHQ spy agency was behind the surveillance, prompting
ridicule in Britain.

The head of the U.S. National Security Agency, Admiral Mike
Rogers, told Monday’s hearing that the allegation had strained
relations with London.

“I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours,” Rogers
said.

Comey warned that Russia would attempt to influence the next
U.S. presidential election in 2020 and perhaps the congressional
elections next year. “They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back
in 2018,” he said.

The hearing was a rare open congressional intelligence
committee hearing and it revealed a stark partisan divide in
focus. Majority Republicans concentrated their questions on
leaks of classified information – a concern that Trump
frequently mentions – and media reports on issues such as
contacts between former Trump national security adviser Michael
Flynn and Russian officials.

Democrats sought to highlight such links, and shoot down
Trump’s wiretapping claim.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu)



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