WASHINGTON - Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers told a Senate panel Wednesday that they would not answer questions about whether President Trump asked them to downplay possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials in last year's election, but they said they did not feel "pressured" to interfere or intervene in the Russia investigation.
Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not believe it was appropriate for him to publicly discuss conversations he has had with the president.
"I have never felt pressured to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way or in relation to an ongoing investigation," Coats testified in response to a question from Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va.
Warner was referring to reports, first published last month in The Washington Post, that Trump asked Coats and Rogers to publicly deny any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials in the 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday night, The Post reported that Coats told associates in March that Trump asked him to try to persuade Comey to back off the FBI's investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Russia.
Rogers also refused to answer Warner's questions about his conversations with Trump about the Russia investigation.
"In the three-plus years that I have been the 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, unethical, immoral or inappropriate," Rogers said, adding that he has never felt "pressured" to do so.
Warner responded that even though Coats and Rogers "may not have felt pressured" by Trump, it's important to know whether the president asked them to interfere or intervene in the Russia investigation or downplay the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
"If he's even asking ... at some point, these facts have to come out," Warner said.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Coats and Rogers whether they would commit to answer questions about their conversations with Trump during a closed session with the committee.
Coats and Rogers said they would have to talk to the White House counsel's office to ensure that the president will not invoke executive privilege to bar their testimony. Rogers said he hoped he would be able to answer the senators' questions during a classified briefing in the future.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said a classified briefing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon was going to focus on technical issues dealing with the FISA surveillance law and would not include the four witnesses who testified in the public hearing.
Warner said he came out of the hearing "with more questions than when I went in."
"What we don't seem to have is the same commitment to find out whether the president of the United States tried to intervene with members of the Intelligence Community and asked them to back off or downplay (the Russia investigation)," Warner told the witnesses. "The president is not above the law."
The hearing came a day before former FBI director James Comey's Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Wednesday's hearing was supposed to focus on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs how U.S. intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance and collect information between foreign powers and "agents of foreign powers" suspected of terrorism. However, the four witnesses also have been key players in the Comey controversy and Russia investigation.
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe refused to answer questions about whether Comey told him about his discussions with Trump, including whether Trump asked Comey to pledge loyalty to the president. McCabe said the FBI, under special counsel Robert Mueller, is continuing its Russia investigation "in an appropriate and unimpeded way" in the wake of Comey's firing.
The panel also questioned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who testified publicly for the first time since Comey was fired. Rosenstein wrote a memo that was critical of Comey shortly before Trump fired Comey. Rosenstein later appointed Mueller to act as special counsel and take over the FBI's probe of Russian interference in last fall's presidential election. Rosenstein would not answer questions Wednesday about Comey's firing.
Comey will testify before the committee Thursday on conversations he had with Trump before his firing. Senators will question him about reports that Trump asked him to shut down the FBI's investigation of Flynn's ties to Russia.
Wednesday's hearing also is focusing on Section 702 of the FISA law. Congress must decide whether to renew the controversial section before it expires at the end of this year. Section 702 has been credited with foiling terrorist plots — including schemes to bomb the New York City subway system and the New York Stock Exchange. But critics say it also gathers an unknown amount of electronic data from Americans. The FBI is then free to search that data without having to get a warrant as would normally be required under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Rogers testified that Section 702 was key in helping the NSA gather intelligence on Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
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