Politicians and media are salivating over Wednesday’s Senate testimony from the top figures in the intelligence community and the opening testimony expected Thursday from former FBI Director James Comey concerning the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, but a former House intelligence committee chairman says so far nothing has really changed.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein joined Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
While each of the men seemed reluctant to say there had been no prodding from the Trump administration on the Russia investigation, all of them rejected the idea that Trump or his team did anything inappropriate.
“In the three-plus years that I have been 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,” said Adm. Rogers. “And to the best of my collection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.”
Former House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra says that is the most important takeaway from Wednesday.
“What the senators did learn is exactly what they needed to learn, that the heads of these agencies and these departments did not feel any pressure at all from the president or from the White House to stop their investigations of what Russia did in the 2016 election, said Hoekstra, who served 18 years in the House. He is now chairman of Hoekstra Global Strategies.
He says those hoping for a room full of smoking guns came up empty.
“It really ended up being all about nothing. I think there were people expecting that they’d hear more about conversations between President Trump and some of these individuals who work with him and that there might have been a revelation that said they felt pressure from the president. Really, nothing materialized today,” said Hoekstra.
However, Hoekstra says he is glad to see strong bipartisan cooperation from the Senate committee, a process he says ought to bring confidence to the American people that the investigation is being handled responsibly.
That’s also what Hoekstra expects to materialize on Thursday, when the immensely hyped Comey testimony takes place before the same Senate committee. On Wednesday, the committee released Comey’s opening statement for Thursday.
Both parties are already seizing on different passages. Trump critics cite Comey’s contention that Trump demanded loyalty from Comey and repeatedly asked Comey to find a way to ease up on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
At the same time, Comey seems to confirm that Trump himself was never personally under investigation and that Trump’s comments to him, while awkward and possibly inappropriate, did not constitute obstruction of justice or any other crime.
In the end Hoekstra suspects few minds will be changed.
“What the American people will probably see as a result is that the talking heads, for the next 24-48 hours, will both claim victory and some justification for their points of view. Then we’ll get to next week and something else will take over the headlines,” said Hoekstra, who says investigators should then focus on where the evidence is screaming for them to go.
“(Special Counsel Robert) Mueller’s got to focus on what the original intent of this investigation was: the Russians. What did the Russians do, not what did Trump do or what did Hillary do, what did their teams do or anything. What did the Russians do? That’s where the focus will hopefully now move to,” said Hoekstra.
Hoekstra says the American people will be the ultimate judges on whether the Democrats take their accusations too far. He admits Republicans would be fiercely critical if Comey had ever suggested President Obama had asked for his loyalty or to go easy on a political ally.
Still, he says Republicans could do themselves a world of political good by actually doing what they promised to do, rather than letting the Russia story suck all the oxygen out of Washington.
“They’d like to have better roads, better bridges, more income, more jobs and those sorts of things. They’re sick and tired of Washington,” said Hoekstra, who says there’s not reason for the GOP not to plow ahead on its legislative agenda.
As for the ongoing intelligence probe, Hoekstra says we also need to dig deeper into reports of extensive Obama administration surveillance on American citizens.
“I think there should be a lot of focus on the surveillance issue. This is an issue that I’m not totally comfortable with. I’d really like to better understand where NSA has evolved in terms of monitoring and unmasking Americans, where that has evolved to over the last seven to eight years since I’ve left the Hill,” said Hoekstra.