WASHINGTON — Saying they did not feel pressured in any instance by the administration, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers refused to answer questions today about whether President Trump did or did not ask them to intervene in the Russia investigation.
The Washington Post reported last month that Trump “made separate appeals” in March to Coats and Rogers “urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election”; the paper said both refused.
On Tuesday evening, the Post reported that Coats told associates that Trump asked Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo if they could get then-FBI Director James Comey to back off from their focus on former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn in the Bureau’s probe into Russia’s campaign influence operation.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today, Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked Coats to “set the record straight about what happened or didn’t happen.”
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to address that in a public session,” Coats replied.
The DNI later referred back to the statement his spokesman gave the Post: “Director Coats does not discuss his private conversations with the President. However, he has never felt pressured by the President or anyone else in the Administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations.”
“I’ve never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way and shape — with shaping intelligence in a political way, or in relationship to an ongoing investigation,” Coats told the committee.
“There was a chance here to lay to rest some of these press reports,” Warner replied. “If the president is asking you to intervene or downplay — you may not have felt pressure, but if he’s even asking, to me, that is a very relevant piece of information.”
Rogers told senators that he was “not going to discuss the specifics of any interaction or conversations… I may or may not have had with the president of the United States.”
“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,” Rogers said. “And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.”
Every time the NSA director was asked if a conversation about the Russia probe occurred with Trump, Rogers did not directly answer the question and referred back to his blanket statement.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pressed the witnesses on whether they had “been asked by the president or the White House to influence an ongoing investigation.”
“Well, Senator, I just hate to keep repeating this, but I’m going to do it,” Coats replied. “I am willing to come before the committee and tell you what I know and what I don’t know. What I’m not willing to do is to share what I think is confidential information that ought to be protected in an open hearing. And so I’m not prepared to answer your question today.”
Rogers said he has “never been directed to do anything in the course of my three-plus years as the director of the National Security Agency that I felt to be inappropriate, nor have I felt pressured to do so.”
“Not directed, asked,” Rubio interjected. “Have you ever been asked to say something that isn’t true?” Rogers referred back to his earlier statements as his answer, as did Coats.
Under grilling from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) about the basis for their refusal to answer questions, Rogers said he did speak with the White House about what may fall under executive privilege in his conversations with Trump, but “did not get a definitive answer” from the administration before the hearing.
“Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the president of the United States of executive privilege? Is there, or not?” King asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Rogers said, adding he wasn’t answering the questions “because I feel it is inappropriate.”
“What you feel isn’t relevant,” King shot back.
King then directed his questioning toward Coats: “I’m not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it is appropriate’ or ‘I do not feel I should answer.’ I want to understand a legal basis. You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And today, you are refusing to do so,” the senator said. “What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?”
“I’m not sure I have a legal basis, but I’m more than willing to sit before this committee and in it’s — in — during its investigative process in a closed session and answer your question,” Coats replied. “…But I do have to work through the legal counsel at the White House relative to whether or not they’re going to exercise executive privilege.”
When asked if he would answer the questions in closed session on whether Trump asked him to influence the Russia investigation, Rogers replied, “I certainly hope that that is what happens.”
“I believe that’s the appropriate thing. But I do have to acknowledge, because of the sensitive nature and the executive privilege aspects of this, I need to be talking to the general counsel and the White House,” the NSA director added. “I hope we come to a position where we can have this dialogue. I welcome that dialogue, sir.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — not a member of the Intelligence Committee but exercising his right as the Armed Services Committee chairman, thus an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Intel panel to participate in today’s hearing and Thursday’s Comey hearing — called the latest Post article on Coats “more than disturbing” if true.
“If it’s true that the president of the United States was trying to get the director of national intelligence and others to abandon a investigation into Russian involvement, it’s pretty serious,” McCain said, adding that the officials weren’t commenting on such detailed newspaper reports “shows what kind of an Orwellian existence that we live in.”
Coats noted that “just because it’s published in the Washington Post doesn’t mean it’s now unclassified.”
“But unfortunately, whether it’s classified or not, it’s now out to the world, which is obviously not your fault, but — describes dates and times, and who met with whom. And so, well, do you — do you want to tell us any more about the Russian involvement in our election that we don’t already know from reading the Washington Post?” McCain said.
“I don’t think that’s a — that’s a position that I’m in. I do know that there are ongoing investigations,” Coats responded. “And I do know that we continue to provide all the relevant intelligence we have to enable those investigations to be carried out with integrity and with knowledge.”
Asked if he had anything to add, Rogers said, “No, sir, other than, boy, some days I sure wish I was an ensign on the bridge of that destroyer again.”
At the end of the hearing, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked the witnesses to “take a message back to the administration: You’re in positions whereby you’re required to keep this committee fully and currently informed of intelligence activities.”
“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” Burr said. “It may be in a different format, but the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it.”