Trey Gowdy’s effort to throw cold water on Trump-Russia collusion backfires spectacularly

Trump says Russia probe is a “witch hunt.” John Brennan says it’s anything but.

CREDIT: MSNBC screengrab
CREDIT: MSNBC screengrab

During a House Intelligence Committee Hearing on Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan confirmed he’s aware of communications between the Trump campaign and Russian officials that sparked concern about possible collusion.

Brennan declined to get into details, saying that specifics about the people involved and what was said remain classified. But he said he “encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals, and it raised questions in my mind whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

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That “information and intelligence,” Brennan added, led to the FBI’s counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign, which began in July 2016.

Brennan was responding to a question from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) about evidence of collusion that seemed intended to highlight that no such evidence exists. His effort backfired. During House Intelligence Committee hearing about the Russia probe, Gowdy has repeatedly tried to change the topic from possible collusion involving the Trump campaign to leaks.

At another point during the hearing, Brennan said that when he left the CIA upon Trump’s inauguration, he “had unresolved questions in my mind about whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf, again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion.” He added that he was concerned about Russia’s efforts to recruit U.S. persons.

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“Therefore, I felt as though the FBI investigation was certainly well founded and needed to look into these issues,” he added.

Though the intelligence community has said all along that it’s concerned about Russia’s efforts to meddle in the presidential election, Trump and others in his inner circle have repeatedly tried to enlist officials to publicly downplay the situation.

In late February, CNN reported that the FBI “rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.” According to CNN, FBI Director James Comey denied White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ request because “the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.” Comey publicly confirmed that investigation in March.

Then, on Monday, the Washington Post broke news that in the wake of Comey’s confirmation of the investigation, Trump tried to enlist Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny that any evidence of collusion existed. They refused, citing the inappropriateness of the intelligence community meddling in an active FBI investigation.

Trump and other administration officials have repeatedly twisted the words of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to support their content that no evidence of collusion existed. But during a Senate hearing on May 8, Clapper explained that he never meant to suggest no evidence existed. Instead, he clarified that he simply wasn’t aware of the FBI’s probe.

Nonetheless, on May 10, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer continued to insist that Clapper’s Meet the Press remarks somehow exonerate the Trump campaign.

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Brennan’s comments came less than a week after Reuters broke news that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers “were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.”

Reuters, citing current and former U.S. officials familiar with the communications, reported that the “previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.”

Six of the communications involved calls between Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Trump advisers, including Flynn. Flynn lost his job as Trump’s national security adviser after officials leaked news that Flynn lied to administration officials about his pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak — including discussions of sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s meddling in the election on behalf of Trump.

Flynn wasn’t the only one who lied about his communications with Kislyak — so did Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promised to recuse himself from any Russia-Trump campaign-related investigations after Justice Department officials leaked news that Sessions didn’t tell the truth during his confirmation hearing. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, also didn’t disclose his December meeting with Kislyak on his security clearance form.

Brennan’s comments about the “well founded” basis of the Russia investigation blow up Trump’s talking point — one he pushed as recently as May 18 on Twitter — that the probe is just a “witch hunt” promoted by Democrats upset about Hillary Clinton’s defeat.