WASHINGTON — A political bombshell landed Monday in Washington as law enforcement confirmed an ongoing investigation into contacts between associates of Donald Trump's campaign and the Russian government last year, including whether crimes were committed.
FBI director James Comey informed a congressional committee that he had received permission from the Justice Department to finally make the revelation public after months of rumours swirling around the capital.
Late last July, Comey said, the agency began investigating contacts between Trump's associates and the Russian government, which is believed to have stolen Democratic party emails and leaked them through intermediaries Wikileaks and Guccifer.
"This will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed," Comey said. "I don't how much longer it will take. But we've been doing this — this investigation began in late July."
That revelation fanned the flames of a low-level fire crackling in the U.S. capital over why the Putin government intervened in the U.S. election, what its motives would have been and to what extent, if any, the Trump team was involved.
Comey resisted being pressed on what Russia would have gained from such an arrangement. He also tiptoed around questions about ties between Russian officials and Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and their common friend Roger Stone.
But he did say that Russian President Vladimir Putin harboured a personal hatred of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He also agreed when asked whether there were some affinities with Trump's campaign on issues like the breakup of the European Union.
But he generally avoided speculating on people and motives.
One thing Comey and another colleague did while testifying Monday was blow up a White House talking point: that the former president, Barack Obama, spied on Trump, possibly using British intelligence agencies as an intermediary.
National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers heaped scorn on the idea. With gritted teeth, he said that would violate the agreement between the so-called "Five Eyes" intelligence agencies — the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — not to spy on each other's citizens.
Republicans pressed witnesses on another issue.
Several members asked repeatedly about leaks — who told the media about former national security adviser Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russian government? Republican Trey Gowdy pressed the FBI director to confirm that leaking classified information could mean jail time.
He got Comey to confirm that. He then pressed Comey to agree that journalists could be prosecuted for writing about an intelligence leak. Comey refused to go along with that, and said he couldn't recall such a prosecution of a journalist in his lifetime.
The revelation of the investigation infuriated some Democrats.
They wondered why the FBI director had sat on the information through the election — even as he caused chaos for their campaign by publicly announcing shortly before the election that they were re-opening an examination of Clinton's emails.
It was part of a daily drip of scandal that ate away at the Democrats, with their daily message eroded by the constant publication of emails from Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta; the leak of Democratic party emails on the eve of the party's convention; and finally with Comey's late-campaign announcement that he was inspecting another batch of her emails.
Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that the election was won fair and square — the Russian hacking did not tamper with vote machines in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida where Trump won the election.
But Democrats have pointed to a plunge in their party's voter turnout, insisting the email hacks hurt morale and made a difference in key states.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press