During a House Intelligence Committee Hearing on Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan said the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia is “well founded.” He cited “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” as evidence.
As Daily Beast editor Justin Miller pointed out, Brennan’s testimony represents the first time a U.S. official has publicly said they have direct knowledge of communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Brennan didn’t come out and detail evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He explained during the hearing the evidence is classified information and not appropriate to discuss a public setting.
Nonetheless, after the hearing, the White House tried to spin Brennan’s testimony as inconsequential. The administration that has routinely decried the use of unnamed sources in media reports sent a statement “attributable to a White House spokesman” to Politico’s Edward Isaac-Dovere that said, “This morning’s hearings back up what we’ve been saying all along: that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion.”
The hearing, however, didn’t back that up at all. By not disclosing details during Tuesday’s hearing, Brennan was just trying to protect classified information.
Brennan made clear that the communications he was referring to were concerning. He said that when 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.”
“Therefore, I felt as though the FBI investigation was certainly well founded and needed to look into these issues,” he added. That investigation began in July 2016 — the month before Trump pushed for unusual pro-Russian changes to the Republican Party platform. A month later, campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned from the campaign amid reports Ukrainian authorities were investigating him for receiving $12.7 million in illegal payments from Ukraine’s former pro-Russia ruling party.
Brennan’s comments about the Trump’s campaign’s communications with Russian officials came in response to questions from Trump-backer Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), whose attempt to throw cold water on Trump-Russian collusion backfired spectacularly. Nonetheless, after the hearing, Gowdy was still telling reporters he doesn’t think there is anything unusual about the Trump campaign being in regular communication with a foreign adversary who was simultaneously meddling in the presidential election.
Trey Gowdy, senior GOP member of House Intel, downplayed Brennan's testimony, telling me it's not unusual for Russians to contact campaigns
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) May 23, 2017
Gowdy’s comment also overlooks the fact Trump associates denied there was contact between the Trump campaign and Russia on 20 separate occasions.
On January 16, Trump told reporters, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.” A month later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said despite Flynn’s transition-period contacts with Kislyak, he wasn’t aware of any Trump associates being in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. On February 20, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump-Russia “is a non-story because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened.”
Last week, Reuters revealed those claims to be lies, reporting 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.”
The Trump White House’s spin about Brennan’s testimony is reminiscent of how Trump administration officials twisted the words of James Clapper following the former director of national intelligence’s appearance on Meet the Press in March. Clapper said he wasn’t aware of any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — a statement Trump and his associates used to claim that no evidence exists.
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
But during a Senate hearing two months later, Clapper clarified that he never meant to suggest no such evidence existed — only that he wasn’t aware of it because FBI Director James Comey didn’t brief him about the FBI’s investigation.
“So it is not surprising or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation or even more important, the content of that investigation,” Clapper said during an MSNBC appearance the same week as the Senate hearing. “So I don’t know if there was collusion or not, I don’t know if there is evidence of collusion or not, nor should I have in this particular context.”
The White House statement also says that the hearing with Brennan backed up that “the President never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing.” That statement comes the day after Trump accidentally confirmed the source of classified intelligence he recklessly shared with Russian officials during a recent Oval Office meeting. During Tuesday’s hearing, Brennan said Trump’s handling of that counterterrorism information broke protocol in a number of ways.