WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey took the extraordinary step on Monday of announcing that the FBI is investigating whether members of President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
Comey’s remarks before the House Intelligence Committee created a treacherous political moment for Trump, who has insisted that “Russia is fake news” that was cooked up by his political opponents to undermine his presidency. Comey placed a criminal investigation at the doorstep of the White House and said agents would pursue it “no matter how long that takes.”
Comey also dismissed Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor during the campaign, a sensational but unfounded accusation that has served as a distraction in the public debate over Russian election interference.
The New York Times and other news organizations have reported the existence of the investigation into the Trump campaign and its relationship with Russia, but the White House dismissed those reports as politically motivated and rallied political allies to rebut them. Comey’s testimony on Monday was the first public acknowledgment of the case. The FBI typically discloses its investigations only in the rare circumstances when officials believe it is in the public interest.
“This is one of those circumstances,” Comey said.
Counterintelligence investigations are among the FBI’s most difficult and time-consuming cases, meaning the cloud of a federal investigation could hang over the Trump administration for years.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that the President Vladimir Putin of Russia personally ordered a covert effort to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances and aid Trump. That included the hacking of political targets including the Democratic National Committee and releasing embarrassing emails through the website WikiLeaks.
Comey said the FBI was “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
U.S. officials have said that they have so far found no proof of that, but current and former officials say they have uncovered evidence that Trump’s associates were in repeated contact with Russian officials — including people tied to Russian intelligence.
Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, has acknowledged communicating with Guccifer 2.0, an online persona believed to be a front for Russian intelligence officials involved in disseminating hacked Democratic emails. Stone has denied that there was anything improper about the contact, and he was one of many, including political operatives and journalists, to communicate with the hackers.
Last July, the month that WikiLeaks began releasing the hacked emails, Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Trump, visited Moscow for a speaking engagement. Page has declined to say whom he met there, but he has said they were mostly scholars.
Michael Flynn, a Trump campaign adviser who went on to be his national security adviser, was paid more than $65,000 by companies linked to Russia in 2015, including an American branch of a cybersecurity firm believed to have ties to Russia’s intelligence services, according to congressional investigators. Flynn was forced to resign after misrepresenting his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Democrats listed those Russian connections and others as they painted Trump as a candidate who adopted pro-Russia views and courted Russian interests.
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat. “Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”
Trump began the day with Twitter posts denying any collusion with Russia and criticizing leaks of classified information about the investigation. By midday, the White House was citing Comey’s testimony to suggest that members of the Obama administration had coordinated leaks against Trump.
Republicans made similar allegations on Capitol Hill, using their questions to Comey as a way to criticize the news coverage about the Russia investigation and chastise government officials who speak anonymously to journalists. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, has said that rooting out those leakers is a priority.
“We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so that these individuals can be brought to justice,” he said.
The White House has insisted that there is nothing left to investigate about Russia and has instead asked Congress to look into Trump’s claims that he was wiretapped. Trump made those allegations in a flurry of Twitter posts early this month.
The White House has stood by those claims even in the face of conclusions from all corners of the government that they are false. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said, adding that the Justice Department also had no evidence.