Donald Trump suffered an astonishing rebuke Monday from his own FBI director, James Comey, during a marathon five-hour hearing before the House Intelligence Committee.
Comey knocked down Trump’s wiretapping allegations. He confirmed the existence of an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He even debunked a tweet that the White House sent out mid-hearing.
The FBI director’s testimony left the White House reeling, Democrats demanding an apology from Trump and Republicans seeking to change the subject — to leaks rather than the substance of those leaks.
Here are POLITICO’s takeaways from an explosive hearing:
Comey is no Trump lackey
The FBI director brought an enormous amount of baggage into the hearing. Many Democrats are still seething over his decision to speak out publicly during the presidential campaign on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
But Comey, who has a reputation for fierce independence, made clear on Monday he is also more than willing to buck Trump. He shot down Trump’s claim this month that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower, saying he has “no information that supports those tweets.” Comey added that there’s “no individual” who can unilaterally order a wiretap — not even a president.
The FBI director also revealed that the bureau launched an investigation in July into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election, including possible collusion with Trump aides.
His testimony was devastating for Trump and the White House, which was left to try and find a silver lining. “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” the White House said, mid-hearing, from the president’s official Twitter feed.
But Comey debunked that, too. Asked about the president’s mid-hearing tweet, Comey said that while the FBI saw no efforts by Russia to change actual votes, it was not “our intention” to suggest Russia’s actions had no influence at all. “We’ve offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact because that’s not something we’ve looked at,” Comey said.
As president, Trump’s words matter
During his political ascendancy, Trump made a habit of slinging insults at his rivals, often without evidence and sometimes based on conspiracy theories.
Being president hasn’t stopped Trump from making evidence-free claims. The difference now, of course, is that his words carry extraordinary weight — and for the first time he’s being held accountable for them.
Since Trump made his wiretapping claim, the White House has wobbled from doubling down to seeking to recast the claim as a broad reference to all possible surveillance of Trump aides, not specifically an Obama-ordered wiretap of Trump’s office phones.
The rest of the federal government isn’t waiting for the White House to get its story straight. Comey did not mince words as he made clear the FBI and the Justice Department could not back up the president. And that’s not for lack of trying.
“We have looked carefully inside the FBI” in an attempt to find evidence, Comey added, and there wasn’t any.
Trump also took heat Monday over the White House’s claim that British intelligence spied on the Trump campaign at the behest of Obama.
“I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity,” said NSA Director Mike Rogers, who testified alongside Comey.
Rogers said the U.S-U.K relationship is “strong enough” to withstand the White House’s charge, but it “clearly frustrates a key ally of ours.”
Republicans are more interested in leaks than what’s being leaked
Nearly all of the Republicans on the committee appeared to be more interested in discussing leaks of classified information to reporters than potential ties between Trump’s team and the Kremlin.
“Whether Russia attempted to influence our democratic process is incredibly important,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) while questioning Comey. “Some of that may rise to the level of a crime. Some of it does not rise to the level of a crime. One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime.”
Comey had several tense exchanges with GOP members over recent press reports that cite anonymous intelligence community officials. They pointed in particular to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose pre-inauguration contacts with Russia were leaked to the news media, leading to his resignation when it was revealed he had misled colleagues about the conversations. Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has said getting to the bottom of that leak is a focus of his committee’s larger Russia investigation.
At one point Gowdy pointedly asked Comey to confirm that sharing classified information was illegal.
“It’s a serious crime,” Comey replied. “I’m not going to comment on those particular articles because I don’t want to in any circumstance compound a criminal act by confirming that it was classified information. But in general, yes, it’s a serious crime, and it should be for the reasons you said.”
Democrats smell blood
Democrats on the Intelligence panel clearly believe they have the beginnings of scandal that could hobble, if not take down, the Trump presidency. And they used Monday’s rare public intelligence hearing to air an array of arguments meant to raise suspicion about Trump’s ties to Moscow.
It began with Schiff’s unusual 15-minute opening statement, in which he walked through the contacts that Trump campaign figures and associates had with Moscow businesses and officials. Other Democrats highlighted changes to the GOP’s 2016 platform they said benefited Russia and Flynn’s undisclosed communications with a top Russian diplomat. And they suggested that the president’s past financial dealings indicate the commander-in-chief has something to hide.
Some of them leaned heavily on the 35-page “dossier” published in January that includes salacious — but unsubstantiated — allegations of collusion against Trump and his campaign aides.
“If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history,” Schiff said.
After the hearing, the California Democrat demanded that Trump apologize both to Obama for his wiretapping allegation and to the American people, “for leading us down this wild goose chase.”
The investigation could take a while
Lawmakers and the public are clamoring for answers to some of the biggest questions to ever hang over a U.S. president: To what extent was Russia involved in helping elect him, and were he or his aides in the know?
Several members of the House Intelligence Committee, including Nunes, implored Comey to carry out the FBI’s investigation as quickly as possible.
“There’s is a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead the country,” Nunes said. “The faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans.”
Comey said he understood Nunes’ concerns, but also made clear that counterintelligence investigations aren’t typically quick turnarounds.
“I don’t know how much longer it will take,” Comey told the committee. “But we’ve been doing this — this investigation began in late July. So for a counterintelligence investigation, that’s a fairly short period of time.”