President Donald Trump has tried to tamp down the growing controversy over his campaign’s ties to Russia by deliberately misrepresenting comments from James Clapper, formerly the nation’s top spy.
On Friday, Clapper began pushing back — and added his voice to the chorus of officials and lawmakers from both parties who worry that there’s more still to come out about possible collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin during the campaign.
Here’s the backstory. Trump took to Twitter twice this week to cite comments from Clapper that purportedly bolstered his assertion that there had been no coordination with Russia.
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is "no evidence" of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
Well, Clapper, Obama’s final director of national intelligence, has a different take.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Friday, Clapper offered a very different explanation of his comments during a May 8 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in the presidential election.
First, here’s a section of what Clapper said in the hearing which contains the “no evidence” portion Trump cites (emphasis added):
In our intelligence community assessment, we made the point that we could not make that call. The intelligence community has neither the authority, the expertise or the resources to make that judgment. The only thing we said was we saw no evidence of influencing voter tallies at any of the 50 states. But we were not in a position to judge whether — what actual outcome on the election.
Now, here’s Clapper with Mitchell clarifying his comments.
Here’s the transcript of what he said (again, emphasis added):
Well, it might be useful, first, to explain the unique position that the FBI occupies in that it straddles both intelligence, as a part of the intelligence community and law enforcement.
My practice during the six and a half years that I was at DNI was always to defer to the director of the FBI, be it Director Bob Mueller or Director Jim Comey on whether, when, and what to tell me about a counterintelligence investigation when the possibility was there that this could devolve into some sort of a criminal investigation.
So I left it to the judgment of the FBI and that was certainly the practice I followed here. But that was consistent with what I did during the whole six and a half years.
So it's not surprising or out of — or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation, or, even more importantly, the content of that investigation.
So I don't know if there was collusion or not. I don't know if there is evidence of collusion or not, nor should I have in this particular context.
In a single moment, one of Trump’s favorite defenses got shot down by the guy the president has been trying to use as a shield.
This isn’t just an issue of semantics. Trump was so happy with Clapper’s testimony that he made a Twitter banner containing his May 8 tweet above. But now, Clapper says he wasn’t trying to say there was no collusion and was simply trying to say he wouldn’t have been in position to know one way or the other. That’s a far cry from the “no evidence” narrative Trump peddles.
There’s one more thing to note. Clapper said he “left it to the judgment of the FBI” throughout the Russia investigation. That investigation just got a whole lot harder to conduct since Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey. (Comey, incidentally, just declined an invitation to testify next week at a closed-door hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.)
Either way, if Trump uses the Clapper-said-there-was-no-evidence line again, it can be called out for what it is: fake news.