Repeatedly at the Senate Intelligence hearing Wednesday morning, the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies were asked by members of the committee whether President Donald Trump tried to influence their investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to the Russian government.
And repeatedly, they gave roughly the same answer: “No comment.”
The non-response by the nation’s top intel chiefs frustrated senators on both sides of the aisle who were looking for answers on the president’s conversations about the ongoing Russia probe. At the end of the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, showed his frustration.
“I come out of this hearing with more questions than when I came in,” he said.
Senators focused their questions on Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Adm. Mkike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, because their alleged meetings with the president were detailed in a comprehensive story in the Washington Post on Tuesday. But both Coats and Rogers dodged the questions.
Said Coats: “I’m not going to comment on those conversations. I do believe it’s inappropriate for me to discuss that in an open session.”
Said Rogers: “In the three-plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall feeling pressured to do so.”
When asked directly in a follow-up whether Trump asked him to interfere in the Russia investigations, Rogers said, “I am not going to discuss specifics, but I stand by the comment I just made to you.”
The stonewalling made for many heated exchanges between senators and agency chiefs throughout the morning.
“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” lectured Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
This hearing’s been on the books for several months, and its official purpose was to discuss Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the U.S. to scoop up communications between non-American nationals abroad. Senators and the heads of the intelligence agencies awkwardly moved back and forth between talking about the interception of communications and the Russia probe.
Asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Kansas, whether any of them had taken any notes on their conversations with President Trump — as FBI director James Comey did — all said that they did not.
Rogers and Coats argued that this hearing was “not the appropriate venue” for discussing the specifics of their conversations with the president. But they didn’t rule out speaking more openly in the closed session that follows later on Wednesday.
“I hope we come to a position where we have this dialogue,” Rogers said. “I welcome it.”
But throughout the hearings, none would say why their conversations should remain private, other than the fact that they were with the president.
The White House could have invoked executive privilege — or, decided to instruct Rogers, Coats, McCabe, and Rosenstein to withhold information for reasons the executive deemed to be in the public interest.
Rogers testified that he asked the White House whether it wanted to invoke executive privilege. “To be honest, I didn’t get a definitive answer,” he said.
After a couple hours of persistent questioning from senators on both sides of the aisle, the legislators grew increasingly frustrated with the intelligence officials’ steady refusals to answer any questions related to Trump’s interference in the Russia probe.
“It shows what kind of an Orwellian existence we live in,” said Sen. John McCain. “Here in a public hearing we can’t discuss what was described in detail in this morning’s Washington Post,” McCain said.
On Tuesday the Post reported that Trump had pushed Coats and Rogers to say publicly that there was no evidence the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia. Both refused.
“The president’s not above the law,” said an exasperated Warner, who then turned to Rosenstein with a question: “If the president interferes in an investigation, wouldn’t that be a concern?”
“If anybody obstructs a federal investigation, it would be a subject of concern,” Rosenstein responded. “I don’t care who they are … If there is any credible allegation that anybody seeks to obstruct a federal investigation, it will be investigated appropriately.”