Two US intel chiefs say were never pressured by White House


Washington (AFP)

Two US intelligence chiefs insisted Wednesday they never felt pressured by the White House over the investigation into alleged Russian election meddling, but stonewalled lawmakers' questions over their conversations with President Donald Trump.

On the eve of potentially explosive testimony from sacked FBI chief James Comey over whether Russia tried to tilt the outcome of last year's election in Trump's favor, Director of Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers both skirted questions about whether the president "asked" them to intervene in the probe.

Hours after Trump announced via Twitter that former Justice Department official Christopher Wray was his choice to head up the FBI, the Senate Intelligence Committee hit a brick wall as they probed allegations that Comey's oversight of the Russian probe lay at the root of his sacking last month.

"I have never been pressured, I've never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way or in relationship to an ongoing investigation," a visibly uneasy Coats said.

"In the three-plus years that I have been director of the National Security Agency, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate," echoed Rogers.

But under intense grilling, both told senators that it was "inappropriate" to discuss in a public hearing their conversations with the president.

When pressured on whether they would answer questions on those conversations in a closed, classified hearing later Wednesday, Rogers and Coats both said they would have to consult White house lawyers as to whether Trump's "executive privilege" powers would prevent them from answering.

"Because of the sensitive nature and the executive privilege aspect of this, I do need to be talking to the general counsel and the White House," Rogers said.

The exchanges left some lawmakers exasperated, with senior Democratic Senator Mark Warner saying he had "come out of this hearing with more questions than when I went in."

- Explosive Comey testimony awaited -

The hearing Wednesday came amid persistent reports that Trump asked Coats, Rogers, Comey and possibly other top intelligence and justice officials to help shield former national security advisor Michael Flynn, which potentially could lead to obstruction of justice charges against the US president.

According to newspaper reports that Comey has not disputed, in three conversations with Trump in January and February, he was asked to pull back on the investigation into Flynn's contacts with Russian officials before and after the November 8 presidential election.

Senators said they will push Comey to discuss those conversations during his appearance in front of the committee Thursday.

Comey is expected to dispute Trump's claim that the then-FBI chief told him multiple times that he was not under investigation, CNN reported, citing sources familiar with Comey's thinking.

- Comparisons to Watergate -

No definitive evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia has yet come to light, and there have not been any formal accusations that Trump sought to obstruct the investigation.

But the allegations have drawn comparison to the 1970s Watergate scandal, in which president Richard Nixon, facing possible impeachment over obstruction of justice charges, was forced to resign.

The hearing Wednesday was somewhat overshadowed by Trump's unexpected announcement of a new FBI director, after he fired Comey last month as he expressed anger over the Russia probe.

Trump has now tapped Wray, who has been working in a private law firm since serving in the Justice Department under president George W. Bush, to replace Comey although his appointment will need congressional approval.

Wray's most high profile recent case was in defense of New Jersey Governor and Trump ally Chris Christie in the 2013 scandal over the closure of a key bridge intended to hurt Christie's political rivals.

He will have limited power to influence the agency's Russia investigation, which was placed in the hands of an independent prosecutor -- former FBI director Robert Mueller -- following Comey's dismissal.

Wray served as assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division under Bush from 2003 to 2005, working closely with the FBI.

At the Justice Department, he helped handle corporate fraud scandals, served on Bush's Corporate Fraud Task Force and oversaw major fraud investigations including that of energy giant Enron.