FBI Director James Comey lit the fuse Monday on a political time bomb and no one knows — including him — how long it will take to burn or what kind of damage it may cause when it goes off.
Comey confirmed to members of Congress that his investigators are looking into possible collusion between the campaign that elected President Donald Trump and the Russian government. In fact, he said, the FBI has been doing so since last July.
The signs had been there, from press reports to the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Sessions would recuse himself from any such probe. Now, Comey’s disclosure to the House Intelligence Committee removes all doubt that the FBI believes there is sufficient evidence to look into the connections between Trump’s onetime political aides and the Kremlin.
The case that Russia interfered in the presidential campaign has been made — the U.S. intelligence community laid out an unclassified version in December and President Barack Obama responded by expelling a group of Russian spies and sanctioning some of its key officials.
But details about the role Trump’s team might have played in the making of that mischief still are murky, and Monday’s hearing did not include much explosive new information. In fact, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California — who served on Trump’s transition team — and his fellow Republicans spent as much of their time as they could drawing the focus away from the Russian collusion narrative.
The real outrage, Republicans argue, is the leaking of classified information to the Washington Post and other newspapers, especially the identity of former Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as having been swept up in U.S. government surveillance of Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn resigned after a brief stint as Trump’s national security adviser and has since retroactively registered as a foreign agent for his work representing Turkish interests; Democrats revealed on Friday that Flynn had also taken more than $50,000 in payments from Russian government entities.
Democrats, led by Ranking Member Adam Schiff also of California, used their time on Monday to put Trump and the Russians together as closely as possible, including in an extended opening statement by Schiff that laid out his theory of the case.
Much of Schiff’s statement, however, relied on information that’s already publicly available or which has been called into question. Monday’s session did not include major new details about the alleged ways that the Trump camp may have worked with the Russian intelligence services.
But it did raise new questions about the imbroglio — some of which lawmakers may answer at a second session now scheduled for March 28, and some of which might not be cleared up until the FBI announces the results of its investigation.
1. How much evidence is still to be discovered? And how reliable is what’s now public?
Schiff crafted a narrative about the Russians’ first exploration of the presidential candidates to a critical period from July to August of 2016. If Moscow began by trying simply to learn more about the potential next U.S. president, it shifted to trying to hurt the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and then helping her opponent — or so the argument goes.
Schiff relied on information that has appeared in press reports and some that appears in a controversial dossier passed from a former British intelligence officer to Comey by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. NPR and other news organizations have refrained from reporting such details because of the unknown provenance of the dossier — but does Schiff’s use of it in the public hearing indicate that at least some of the information has been verified?
The Democrats’ case also rests on conversations between Trump advisers and people connected to the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, or other top Russians. But how much more detail exists about what was said in those meetings? How much effort are congressional or FBI investigators making to interview Trump’s campaign advisers?
2. Might Trump aides have colluded with Russia without knowing it?
One new thread that emerged from Monday’s hearing came as part of an exchange between Comey and Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley, who asked whether it’s possible for Americans to help a foreign power and not know about it.
Yes, Comey answered cautiously — an American might give information to someone he legitimately believes is a Chinese researcher and isn’t aware is actually a Chinese intelligence officer. Or an American might fall in love with someone and not realize they’re in a relationship with a foreign agent: “Romance could be a feature,” he said.
That could explain denials by people at the center of the Trump-Russia imbroglio, including former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who resigned after reports about his connections to pro-Kremlin government factions in Ukraine. The New York Times referred to Manafort in a story in February about U.S. intelligence officials documenting many alleged connections between the Trump camp and the Russians.
Manafort called the report “absurd” and told the newspaper: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
Manafort’s comment caused head-scratching at the time it appeared, but Comey and Quigley’s exchange on Monday created the prospect for a story about Russia not necessarily using Trump campaign aides as agents, but dupes.
3. What did Trump know – and when did he know it?
If Comey’s investigation results in no charges or new information about ties between Trump’s camp and Russia, the White House would get rid of an albatross that has been around its neck for months. But if the FBI charges former Trump campaign officials, or reveals links between the Trump camp that haven’t already been aired publicly that could escalate quickly and land the president or his top campaign aides in hot water.
Trump never retreats and never apologizes and so far has mounted a brash defense. He flits between sometimes acknowledging the Russian mischief during the presidential race and sometimes dismissing it as a fiction created by Democrats to excuse their loss. That strategy has continued to be workable and Republican aides on Capitol Hill have shown continued willingness to carry water for the White House in responding to press reports or handling inquiries like those on Monday.
But charges against Trump aides, or new revelations about collusion between the campaign and Russian agents, would change all that — and fast. Democrats may never forgive Comey for revealing just before Election Day that the FBI had resumed some inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which Clinton and Democrats say threw a close election to Trump. Now the president, the White House and their Republican allies on Capitol Hill are under a similar Sword of Damocles.
4. How will Russia respond to the investigations and their outcome?
Comey, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and other top U.S. intelligence officials have taken care not to say whether they believe Russia succeeded in influencing the outcome of the 2016 election — only that they’re confident Moscow conducted an influence campaign.
Will Russian President Vladimir Putin turn out to have invested wisely or to have been the dog that caught the car? If Putin wanted the U.S. to relax the Obama-era sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that ship may have sailed — the scrutiny of Trump’s connections to Moscow may have now made even the appearance of any deal impossible.
And American military deployments in Eastern Europe, including of armored units along NATO’s frontier with Russia and of ships and aircraft in the Black Sea, have continued.
None of this means, however, that Putin is finished meddling in American politics, Comey warned. He told members of Congress on Monday that the Russians, for their own purposes, likely are satisfied with their work — having sowed confusion and undercut faith in the U.S. democratic process — and may try it again.
“We have to assume they’re coming back,” he said.