WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. intelligence officials have refused to answer key questions from senators about whether President Donald Trump sought to influence the FBI investigation into his associates’ ties to Russia.
The tense June 7 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee came one day before former FBI Director James Comey is to testify for the first time since his firing by Trump last month.
Comey was overseeing the criminal probe into Trump associates’ interactions with Russian officials, including Trump’s first choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn. News reports have said Trump sought to pressure Comey to back off his investigation of Flynn, who was fired in February after he misled White House officials about his communications with Russian officials, including Moscow's ambassador in Washington.
The question of whether Trump’s current and former associates had inappropriate interactions with Russian or other foreign officials has shadowed the Trump White House since his inauguration in January, hobbling his push on several major legislative priorities.
During the Senate hearing, both Democratic and some Republican lawmakers pressed Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers about whether Trump had pressured them about the FBI investigation.
The Washington Post said in an article published June 6 that said Trump pressed Coats to intervene with the FBI on the investigation of Flynn.
"I have never been pressured. I have never felt pressure to interfere or intervene in shaping intelligence in a political way," Coats told the panel.
But both Coats and Rogers also said they wouldn't publicly reveal more specifics of private conversations they had with Trump.
"What I'm not willing to do is to share confidential information that I think ought to be protected in an open hearing," Coats later told senators.
The Justice Department on May 17 appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the FBI investigation.
In addition to the FBI probe, at least two different congressional panels, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, are looking into that issue, as well as U.S. intelligence reports that Russia actively meddled in the 2016 election campaign.
Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate committee, said any interference by Trump in the FBI investigation would be deeply troubling.
"Any attempt by the White House or even the president himself to exploit this community as a tool for political purposes is deeply, deeply troubling," he said.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied U.S. intelligence conclusions that Moscow tried to tilt the election campaign in Trump's favor.