The intelligence chiefs said answering the senators’ questions would be ‘inappropriate.’
Sen. Angus King (D-Maine) on Wednesday attempted to smash the stonewalling non-answers from intelligence officials, as they refused to say whether President Donald Trump attempted to recruit them in alleged efforts to downplay the FBI investigation into Russia and members of his campaign.
During Wednesday morning’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe repeatedly declined to directly answer whether Trump asked them to publicly downplay the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Russia probe, or to otherwise interfere with the investigation, as numerous reports claim. All three officials claimed they thought it would be inappropriate to discuss conversations with Trump that may be part of the federal investigation into Trump’s team and Russia. They also claimed in broad terms that they had not been asked to do anything illegal.
King, clearly frustrated, asked all three men why they refused to answer questions related to their alleged conversations with Trump. Addressing Rogers, King asked whether the White House invoked executive privilege over the president’s conversations with Rogers and Coats, which would bar them from discussing the conversations publicly.
Both men said the White House had not invoked executive privilege.
“Then why are you not answering our questions?” King asked in response.
“Because I feel it is inappropriate,” Rogers responded.
“What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral,” King shot back.
Pressing further, King asked Coats and Rogers to explain the basis for their refusal to answer questions about their alleged conversations with Trump, which they implied were classified but are not.
“What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?” King asked Coats.
“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” Coats responded, “but I am more than willing to sit before this committee… in a closed session and answer your questions.”
King then asked Coats and Rogers whether they would commit to answering the questions in a closed session. Coats said he would first ask White House counsel to say whether it intends to invoke executive privilege—despite the fact that, according to the officials, it has not yet done so.
This exchange: King presses McCabe, Rogers, Coats on refusal to discuss convos w/ Comey & Trump, demands legal basis https://t.co/UoGXtJlTQT
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 7, 2017
King’s exchange with the intelligence officials encapsulates the political pressure building around the Trump-Russia controversy, which is expected to reach a boiling point on Thursday when former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Trump fired Comey last month. Since then, reports revealed that Trump allegedly asked Comey to sideline the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and demanded Comey’s loyalty, which he reportedly refused to provide.
Comey’s testimony will begin at 10am ET on Thursday.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Sen. Angus King’s first name.