On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing that would serve as a sort of amuse-bouche to former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday, as they questioned four current Trump administration members on a variety of matters.
However, no sooner had I warned Democrats not to fall into the trap of helping President Donald Trump than Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA) did just that.
The witnesses included National Security Agency Director, Admiral Mike Rogers, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, all of whom have information that’s potentially relevant to Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation.
In his very first question to the panel, Warner actually made a point of asking for an opinion about contacts they allegedly had with Trump regarding the FBI’s Russia investigation, which gave NSA Director Mike Rogers an opening to deliver a soundbite that will gladden the hearts of Trumpies everywhere [emphasis added]:
WARNER: We all know now that in March, Director Comey testified to the existence of an ongoing FBI investigation, and the links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And there are reports out in the press that the president separately appealed to you, Admiral Rogers, and to you, Director Coats, to downplay the Russia investigation. And now we’ve got additional reports — and we want to give you a chance to confirm or deny these — that the president separately addressed you, Director Coats, and asked you to, in effect, intervene with Director Comey, again, to downplay the FBI investigation.
Admiral Rogers, you draw the short straw. I’m going to start with you. Before we get to the substance of whether this call or request was made, you’ve had a very distinguished career close to 40 years. In your experience, would it be in any way typical for a president to ask questions or bring up an ongoing FBI investigation, particularly if that investigation involves associates and individuals that might be associated with the president’s campaign or his activities?
ROGERS: Well today, I am not going to talk about theoreticals. I am not going to discuss the specifics of any interactions or conversations I may or may not…
WARNER: Can you, can you…
ROGERS: If I could finish, sir, please. That I may or may not have had with the president of the United States. But I will make the following comment. 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 believed to be illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection during that same period of service, I do not ever recall feeling pressured to do so.
By leading with a question that required an opinion or a characterization, Warner opened the door for Rogers — a current Trump administration official — to offer one that was helpful to Trump, without requiring him to offer any facts to back it up. Trump may have, indeed, said something that a reasonable person might find damning (or that became damning in light of later revelations), but Rogers didn’t have to deliver those facts, just his own stupidly-solicited opinion.
Had Warner stuck to the facts, he’d have had what Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) got later in the hearing: a panel of witnesses clamming up, instead of four guys clamming up and one helping Trump. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also did an effective job of pointing out that Director Coats could simply tell the committee that reports of his contacts with Trump were untrue without revealing confidential communications.
But all that will be remembered from this hearing will be Rogers’s defense of Trump, which none other than Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) would later chip away at ever so slightly.
Democrats will have to be smarter than this with Comey because even though he’s not part of the government anymore, he’s got just as much motivation to offer an opinion that explains why he didn’t act sooner.