The directors of the FBI and NSA are to give keenly awaited testimony before Congress Monday on what ties President Donald Trump may have with Russia and his explosive allegation that he was wiretapped by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Hours before the House Intelligence Committee opened the first public hearing into both controversies, Trump sought to steer the news focus by branding the Russia issue, which has been a cloud over his November presidential victory, “fake news.”
Former intelligence chief “James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!” he said in a series of morning tweets.
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign.”
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”
His angry tweets added to the huge political pressure from both parties on Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and Mike Rogers of the National Security Agency.
Democrats say they suspect members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow in its efforts to interfere in the November presidential election to boost Trump.
US intelligence has concluded that Russia indeed meddled, but has said nothing about possible collusion with Team Trump.
Meanwhile, Republicans have sought to focus on leaks of classified information on the issue to the media, as well as Trump’s counter-allegation that Obama ordered surveillance on his Trump Tower in New York.
- High political stakes -
The claims have riveted the American public for weeks, and the stakes for the tycoon-turned-president could hardly be higher.
Trump and his entourage’s possible ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia have been the subject of much speculation since before the Republican billionaire was elected on November 8.
US intelligence agencies in January took the extraordinary step of stating publicly that they had concluded that hackers working for Russia under Putin’s direction broke into the email accounts of senior Democrats and released embarrassing documents to damage Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Even since then, the question of whether Trump and his campaign team were or are somehow in cahoots with Russia has dominated the national conversation.
“The real problem here is you had a foreign adversarial power intervene in our election, a very close election, and what our intelligence community tells us is they’re going to do it again,” Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence panel, told CBS News Monday.
“If we’re going to protect the country, we need to know exactly what the Russians did, how they did it, how to protect ourselves, how to protect our European allies who are facing elections right now that the Russians are interfering in.”
But Devin Nunes, the Republican who chairs the committee, said Sunday that they have so far has found no evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.
Based on “everything I have up to this morning -- no evidence of collusion,” Nunes told Fox News.
Yet Nunes also rejected Trump’s claim that there was a wiretap of Trump Tower, Trump’s New York residence and headquarters for both his business and campaign.
On March 4, Trump tweeted that Obama had “tapped” his phone, and last week the White House, citing news reports, suggested that Britain’s GCHQ signals intelligence agency had helped at Obama’s bidding.
Those claims sparked anger in London, where GCHQ, a close partner of US spy agencies, branded the allegation “utterly ridiculous.” Trump later said his spokesman was simply reading a Fox News report -- which the network disavowed.
- ‘Wild goose chase’ -
Several congressional panels have launched investigations into Russia’s alleged election interference, including the House and Senate intelligence committees and the House and Senate judiciary committees.
The question remains whether the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into possible ties between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.
Monday’s hearing promises to be a very public showdown, with the national security world certain to watch whether Comey, silent up until now on the claims, drops a political bombshell.
Another key focus will be the contacts between Michael Flynn, Trump’s sacked national security advisor, and Moscow’s ambassador in Washington last December.
Flynn later admitted talking to the ambassador about US relations with Russia just as the Obama administration was slapping punitive new sanctions and expelling three dozen Russian officials over the election interference.
Nunes has said that the intelligence committee will focus in part on who revealed that Flynn had those conversations, which were reportedly recorded by US intelligence.