Top intelligence and law enforcement officials refused to confirm reports that President Donald Trump had tried to shut down an ongoing FBI probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia.
It was a bad day for the White House all the same.
That’s because the officials also declined to definitively say that Trump hadn’t asked them to do so. Put another way, none of the high-level government officials were willing to testify, under oath, that former FBI Director James Comey was wrong to allege that Trump told him to shut down the Flynn probe, a move that could amount to obstruction of justice.
The optics would have been bad enough if Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing — which featured, among others, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers — had occurred in isolation. But they’re particularly bad given that the hearing comes just a day before Comey himself is set to testify under oath that Trump asked him to stop the Flynn investigation.
The panel’s ranking member, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, summed up what many were likely feeling after the hearing:
After today's hearing, we’re left with more questions than answers about POTUS' conduct. The President is not above the law. None of us are. pic.twitter.com/NeiI7xEmws— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) June 7, 2017
The reason Warner and others felt that way is that the witnesses were cautious — very cautious — about answering any questions related to the investigation into whether or not there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
To get a clearer picture of how the hearing went, check out this exchange between Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Rogers:
Watch this intense exchange between Sen. Angus King and intelligence chiefs: "I don't understand why you're not answering our questions." pic.twitter.com/CWmwfISBHK— CNN (@CNN) June 7, 2017
The whole video is worth watching, but here’s the crux of it:
KING: Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the president of the United States of executive privilege? Is there or not?
ROGERS: Not that I am aware of.
KING: Then why are you not answering the questions?
ROGERS: Because I feel it is inappropriate, senator.
KING: What you feel isn’t relevant, Admiral. What you feel isn’t the answer.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. The witnesses refused to answer the question regardless of which senator asked, which party they came from, and what kind of wording they used.
But the non-answers were revealing all the same. If any of the witnesses had stated “no” to the line of questioning — that Trump asked them to interfere with the Flynn probe — Trump would have gotten a major boost just one day before the Comey hearing. Instead, the concerns about Trump’s meddling in the investigation remain, and may have even grown stronger given the evasiveness of the witnesses.
That means it’s still entirely possible that Trump did ask them to help shut down or slow an ongoing probe.
What only added to the confusion, and the bad optics, were the statements Rogers and Coats gave early on in the hearing that were clearly designed to get out of answering probe-related inquiries. For instance, Adm. Michael Rogers had this to say during an exchange with Warner:
NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers: "I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate" pic.twitter.com/vXF0Wqj2hU— CNN (@CNN) June 7, 2017
It’s a strong, declarative statement from Rogers — but it doesn’t do much to clear anything up. Rogers never said he wasn’t asked to halt the Flynn investigation, just that he wasn’t “directed” or “pressured” to do so.
He’s under oath, so he has every incentive to tell the truth. But in this case, the truth might have served as a fortunate way out of answering the real question he was asked.
Not to be outdone, Coats also provided a similar non-answer to questioning:
Coats: "I have never been pressured and never felt pressured to intervene or interfere to shape intelligence in a political way."— Julian Borger (@julianborger) June 7, 2017
So, what was supposed to be a hearing about America’s counterterrorism authorities abroad turned into a tough moment for Trump’s presidency.
The caveat, of course, is that if Coats and Rogers did tell the full, true story of what happened in open testimony, they might very well lose their jobs. So it was unsurprising, in a way, that the witnesses behaved the way they did.
But in a grander context, it was a remarkable moment in American history because, when asked, top government officials in the Trump administration wouldn’t come to the president’s defense.
It would be one thing if this were the only high-profile hearing for a while that could harm the president. But Trump will not be so lucky. Today’s hearing became a scene-setter for tomorrow’s session with former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired over the Russia investigation.
There’s more to come tomorrow
Comey will finally get a chance to speak in public after he was unceremoniously fired from his FBI post in May.
And Comey, of course, now has a greater ability to speak his mind than if he were still a government employee. Unlike his former colleagues Coats and Rogers, then, he will be much more forthright with the senators questioning him. And, it would be hard to blame Comey for having a bone to pick with Trump because of the way the president treated him.
In fact, according to the just-released copy of his pre-written testimony, Comey plans to describe a series of interactions with the president in which Comey says the president just to get him to lay off the Flynn investigation.
Many of the questions asked today will likely be recycled in tomorrow’s hearing. Only this time, the senators will have a much greater chance of getting answers to their inquiries.
So today was not a great day for the president. And all signs point to it only getting worse for him tomorrow. These two days may soon be remembered as one of the worst times in the Trump presidency.