On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said that he would not invoke executive privilege to keep the public from hearing the truth from James Comey about his reported attempts to sideline the FBI’s investigation into his Russia ties. On Wednesday, it became clear why he might not have to. Four of America’s top intelligence and law enforcement officials stonewalled the issue of Trump’s reported interference with the investigation, despite a series of probing and sometimes heated questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The reticence of the leaders of the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FBI to discuss Trump’s behavior with their congressional overseers raises a larger issue. When Congress asks America’s spymasters an unclassified question, are they obliged to answer?
Not necessarily, according to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. Coats declined to address several questions about whether Trump had asked him if he could intervene in the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s Russia ties, as reported in detail by the Washington Post.
Coats repeatedly said that discussing his conversations with Trump would not be “appropriate.”
“I’m not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it’s appropriate,’” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “You swore that oath to tell us the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. And today you are refusing to do so. What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify before this committee?”
“I’m not sure I have legal basis,” Coats answered. He declined to say whether he would answer King’s questions in the committee’s closed session, explaining that questions would have to go through White House lawyers. Coats even raised the possibility that the White House would invoke executive privilege to keep him from answering the senators’ questions in a closed session, something that Trump has said he will not do with respect to former FBI Director James Comey’s upcoming testimony before the intelligence committee on Thursday. That hearing, the most anticipated congressional hearing in years, will be carried live on network TV.
Trump himself is a promiscuous sharer of private information. He drew wide criticism for babbling out sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State during a White House meeting with top Russian officials. He published details from his conversations with Comey in the public letter announcing Comey’s firing. He gossiped with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte about the location of two U.S. nuclear submarines, one of the country’s most closely guarded tactical secrets.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Coats was not the only leader of the intelligence community who treated Trump with the loyalty and discretion that the president so infrequently affords to others. NSA Director Michael Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe all repeatedly dodged questions about Trump’s reported interference in the Russia investigation. There are reports that Trump asked Rogers, along with Coats, to get Comey to back off, and McCabe may have been among those at the FBI who knew about Comey’s own fraught interactions with the president. At times, Rogers and Coats appeared to be defending the president’s conduct.
“I have never been pressured — I’ve never felt pressure — to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way or in relationship to an ongoing investigation,” Coats said. Rogers, for his part, said, “I have never been directed to do anything I believed to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate.” But beyond offering general characterizations of their feelings and beliefs, both men passed up numerous opportunities to refute the idea that Trump had asked them to apply the brakes to Comey’s Russia inquiries.
Nearly lost in the build-up to Comey’s testimony was the ostensible purpose of Wednesday’s hearing — a discussion of the government’s ability to conduct surveillance under Section 702, a little-understood spying authority that is supposed to be directed at foreign targets but often simultaneously sweeps up the content of U.S. communications. The government’s Section 702 authorities will expire at the end of this year; a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., would make them permanent. In his confirmation hearing, Coats said that he would put together an estimate of how many Americans have their communications swept up by Section 702. On Wednesday, Coats said that “technical details” would prevent him from doing so. “You went back on a pledge!” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a critic of the surveillance state’s excesses, thundered in response.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was frustrated by the officials’ inability to address what has already been widely reported about their conversations with Trump. If the allegations of Trump’s interference with Comey are true, he said, it would be “pretty serious.”