Intel chiefs rebuff senators' questions in Russia probe, but deny being pressured in any way
MUM'S THE WORD: Intel chiefs rebuff senators' questions on Russia probe, but deny being pressured

Two top members of President Trump’s intelligence agencies declined Wednesday to comment on allegations the president pressured them to end or downplay the FBI’s investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia, while issuing a blanket denial that they were ever told to do anything inappropriate.

National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats both said they would not discuss specifics of conversations with Trump, during a hearing that served as a prelude to fired FBI Director James Comey’s appearance Thursday.

“I have, in the three-plus years leading [the agency], to the best of my knowledge, never been directed to do anything I believed to be illegal, immoral or inappropriate … or have felt pressure to do so,” Rogers added, without elaborating.

Coats also told the Senate Intelligence Committee he never felt pressured but that he wouldn’t discuss conversations with the president. Coats, however, appeared to leave open the possibility that he would discuss the issue in a private session with the committee.

“We are in a public session here,” Coats told Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, who posed the questions to him and Rogers. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to share confidential [information] here.”

The Washington Post had reported overnight that Trump had approached Coats about pressuring the FBI to back off its probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and had asked Rogers to deny there was evidence of coordination with Russia.

Warner said Wednesday he was “disappointed” by Rogers’ response and said Rogers and Coats had the “chance to lay to rest” questions about Trump allegedly pressuring members of the U.S. intelligence community.

The hearing is taking place one day before the committee hears from Comey, who will testify on Capitol Hill for the first time since Trump fired him in May.

The Trump administration initially cited Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case, but Trump reportedly has suggested he also had concerns about his handling of the Russia probe.

The committee chairman, North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr, called Wednesday’s hearing to debate reauthorizing a key part of a U.S. surveillance law that is set to expire later this year.

“This is not the time to needlessly roll back our capabilities,” Burr said at the start of the hearing.

However, Warner made clear at the opening of the hearing that he would ask the witnesses about the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and if Trump asked any of them to try to quash the FBI’s probe.

Comey purportedly wrote a memo stating Trump tried to get him to back off investigating Flynn, whom Trump fired for failing to disclose talks with a Russian diplomat.

The back-to-back hearings come as the White House grapples with the fallout from Comey’s firing, which led to the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation in an effort to prevent even the appearance of Oval Office interference.

Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, and ensuing congressional and FBI investigations into Moscow’s ties with Trump associates has dogged the president since he took office.

White House officials had weighed trying to block Comey from testifying on Thursday by arguing that his discussions with the president pertained to national security and that there was an expectation of privacy. However, officials ultimately concluded that the optics of taking that step would be worse than the risk of letting the former FBI director testify freely.

“I wish him luck,” Trump said Tuesday.

Early Wednesday, Trump announced his pick to succeed Comey at the FBI — Christopher Wray, a former Justice Department official who served as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s lawyer during the George Washington Bridge lane-closing investigation.

Trump has consistently pushed back against suggestions that his campaign coordinated with Russia and has called the investigation a hoax.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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