In files, no proof of wiretapping, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON -- The Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Sunday that documents provided to Congress by the Justice Department on Friday offered no proof to support President Donald Trump's claim that his predecessor had ordered wiretaps of Trump Tower.

"Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, there never was, and the information we got on Friday continues to lead us in that direction," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the committee chairman, said on Fox News Sunday.

He added, "There was no FISA warrant that I'm aware of to tap Trump Tower" -- a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a federal law that governs the issuance of search warrants in U.S. intelligence gathering.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the panel's top Democrat, said: "We are at the bottom of this. There is nothing at the bottom."

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The two House leaders did not agree, however, on whether the question of collusion between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives has been settled.

Nunes said the new Justice Department documents, submitted in response to a congressional request, included "no evidence of collusion" to swing the election in Trump's favor. The chairman repeated previous statements that there is no credible proof that there was any active coordination.

The lawmaker said he remained primarily concerned about leaks of U.S. surveillance of conversations between Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn resigned last month after the leaks revealed that he had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office.

"That's the only crime we know has been committed right now," Nunes said.

But Schiff, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, said there was "circumstantial evidence of collusion" at the outset of the congressional investigations into purported Russian election meddling, as well as "direct evidence" that Trump campaign figures sought to deceive the public about their interactions with Russian figures.

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"Of course, there's one thing to say there's evidence; there's another thing to say we can prove this or prove it beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "But there was certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation. The American people have a right to know, and in order to defend ourselves, we need to know whether the circumstantial evidence of collusion and direct evidence of deception is indicative of more."

'Unmasking' questions

Trump last week defended his March 4 tweets that claimed President Barack Obama "had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory," which he compared to McCarthyism and the Watergate scandal.

In a Fox News Channel interview Thursday, Trump said, "I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks." Trump has also said he was referring more generally to surveillance, not necessarily bugging of phones. His aides have supported him on those claims.

Nunes said Trump could be referring to new information about whether intelligence officials "unmasked," or identified, U.S. citizens who were captured speaking with foreign officials who are under routine surveillance -- a process governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"That is very possible, and we don't have the answers to those questions yet," he said. "We had a deadline of Friday for the [National Security Agency], FBI and CIA to get us those names that were unmasked through the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] system. We didn't get those names on Friday, and until we get those names, we can't rule this out."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on CNN's State of the Union that he had seen no evidence that the Obama administration had placed Trump under surveillance at Trump Tower, the Manhattan high-rise that houses Trump's residence, business office and campaign office.

Cotton deflected a question on whether the president should apologize for the accusation. But on ABC's This Week, a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee did call on Trump to apologize.

"To quote my 85-year-old father ... it never hurts to say you're sorry," said Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former clandestine agent for the CIA. "I think it helps with our allies. We've got to make sure that we're all working together. We live in a very dangerous world, and we can't do this alone. ... It's not just sorry to the president, but also to the U.K. for the claims or the intimation that the U.K. was involved in this, as well. It doesn't hurt. And it takes away from the rest of his agenda."

The White House last week highlighted an unverified report that Britain's cyberintelligence organization conducted the surveillance at Obama's behest, even though the agency denied those claims. During German Chancellor Angela Merkel's first visit to the Trump White House, Trump mentioned the Obama administration's monitoring of Merkel's cellphone, claiming that he and the German leader have that in common.

"What the president said was just patently false," Schiff said of the Trump Tower allegations. "The wrecking ball it created has now banged into our British allies and our German allies and is continuing to grow in terms of damage. And he needs to put an end to this."

Committee hearing

The lawmakers spoke a day before the House Intelligence Committee holds its first public hearing on suspected Russian attempts to interfere in last year's presidential election.

While the FBI and other intelligence agencies have already found that Russia hacked into Democratic emails and leaked them in an attempt to help Trump, members of the intelligence panel want more information from FBI Director James Comey.

"Were there U.S. persons who were helping the Russians in any way?" Schiff questioned on Meet the Press. "Was there any form of collusion? And what can we do to protect not only ourselves in the future [but also] our allies who are facing the same Russian onslaught right now?"

Comey may need to be limited in his comments on collusion because of the nature of ongoing investigations, Schiff said.

"But there's a lot he can tell us about the Russian motivations for their intervention in our election, how the Russians operate in Europe, what techniques they use, what we should be on the lookout for in our investigation," he said.

Cotton said he was waiting to hear Comey's testimony.

"The House committee hearing ... is going to be in part about the unsubstantiated allegations in the media and by some Democrats of collusion between Trump associates and Russian intelligence," Cotton said.

Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, is also scheduled to testify.

In a separate interview on This Week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., focused on the leak of Flynn's communications with Kislyak and said those within the federal government who might have been responsible should undergo lie-detector tests.

"It is very, very important that whoever released that go to jail, because you cannot have members of the intelligence community listening to the most private and highly classified information and then releasing that to The New York Times," Paul said. "There can only be a certain handful of people who did that. I would bring them all in. They would have to take lie-detector tests. And, I would say, including the political people, because some political people knew about this as well."

Hurd, however, pushed back on the notion that government operatives were seeking to undermine Trump.

"I spent 9½ years as an undercover officer," Hurd said. "I was the dude in the back alleys at 4 in the morning collecting intelligence to protect our homeland. ... The men and the women in the CIA, they do their job regardless of who is in the White House. Same for NSA. Same for FBI. These men and women are putting themselves in harm's way."

Hurd said that if Russia really is campaigning to interfere with U.S. politics, it would "go down in the history of Mother Russia as the greatest covert action campaign" it had ever pursued.

"It created a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the White House, the intelligence community and the American public," he said. "And that's why, as we go through this review and investigation, it has to be bipartisan. It has to be thorough. And it has to be thoughtful, because we are feeding into this covert-action narrative that the Russians are trying to create."

Information for this article was contributed by Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post; by Michele Salcedo of The Associated Press; and by Chris Strohm, Alan Bjerga and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 03/20/2017

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