Trump Confronts Ongoing Russia Controversy Amid Gorsuch Hearing

19 hours ago
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There is a big, gray cloud you have put over the people leading this country. That is what the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, told FBI Director James Comey today. During a hearing on Capitol Hill, Comey confirmed for the first time publicly the FBI is investigating Russia's role in last year's election and potential ties to associates of President Trump.

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JAMES COMEY: The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

MCEVERS: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House. Hello there.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCEVERS: So this cannot be a good day for the White House.

LIASSON: Nope, not a good day. You know, this was supposed to be a great week for President Trump. His nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, who's been widely praised and is widely expected to get confirmed one way or another, started his confirmation hearings today. And later this week, House Republicans are going to vote on Obamacare repeal and replacement, which could be Donald Trump's first major legislative accomplishment. But then, as you just heard, Russia is back as a big, gray cloud.

MCEVERS: So how is the White House responding to what Comey said?

LIASSON: President Trump tweeted early this morning even before the hearing began. He said, quote, "the Democrats made up and pushed the Russia story." That was yet another Trump claim that Comey's testimony contradicted today. And then at the White House later on, press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay Comey's revelations about the investigation.

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SEAN SPICER: Following this testimony, it's clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so. Obama's director of national intelligence said so. And we take them at their word.

LIASSON: Spicer there was referring to statements that came prior to today. Those Obama administration intelligence officials were talking about the fact that they hadn't seen any evidence of collusion as of early January. Spicer was also trying to say that the Russian investigation has concluded with no evidence of coordination, when in fact Comey went out of his way to say that it's ongoing, they haven't made any final assessments, including assessments about whether any crimes were committed. So I would say it was a bad day for the no collusion conclusion.

MCEVERS: What about President Trump's allegations that his predecessor, President Obama, ordered the wiretapping of his phones during the campaign? And what did Comey say about that?

LIASSON: Comey said the FBI has no information to support those claims. And that is true of the entire Justice Department, although Sean Spicer continued to insist that investigators could still find evidence of that. There was another part of the hearing today that the White House did want to talk about. You know, while Democrats on the committee were focused on Russia's efforts to undermine faith in U.S. democracy by meddling in the election, the Republican members of the committee were focused on something else.

They were focused on leaks and how it came to be known that former White House national security adviser Mike Flynn had spoken with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn was subsequently fired by the president for not telling the truth about the subject of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Comey told the committee he takes these potential criminal leaks very seriously, but he would not confirm whether he was investigating them.

MCEVERS: So, I mean, big picture here - how damaging is all of this for President Trump?

LIASSON: Well, Comey did not put a timetable on this investigation, so it seems certain that it's going to be hanging over the White House for some time. You know, law enforcement investigations are a grinding process. Comey said this one started in July, and he said that's very young for an investigation of this kind. And every day that Trump's ties to Russia are in the headlines is not a good day. The president now is at 37 percent approval rating. That's the - in Gallup. That's the lowest ever for a president at this point.

But on the other hand, look at what's happening in the Senate. If Gorsuch is confirmed, Trump would have cemented the conservative majority on the court for maybe a generation, especially if he gets another opening on the Supreme Court soon. And that impact on American life could outweigh any political damage to Trump from this investigation, including the self-inflicted damage.

MCEVERS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.