By Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former CIA Director John Brennan said on Tuesday that he does not know whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia but that he saw “information and intelligence that was worthy of investigation.”
In addition, the country’s top intelligence official, Dan Coats, declined to say, as reported by the Washington Post, whether Trump had asked him to publicly deny that any evidence exists on collusion between his campaign and Moscow.
The two men testified at separate congressional hearings amid a political storm in Washington over the fallout from Trump’s firing on May 9 of FBI Director James Comey. Comey’s dismissal came in the middle of an FBI probe into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign, leading to accusations by Trump critics that the Republican president has sought to curtail the FBI inquiry, which could potentially amount to obstruction of justice.
Brennan, testifying to the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said it became clear last summer that Russia was trying to interfere in the presidential election, and that he warned the head of Russia’s FSB security service that such interference would hurt U.S. ties.
“It should be clear to everyone Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process and that they undertook these activities despite our strong protests and explicit warning that they do not do so,” Brennan said.
Republican Representative Trey Gowdy asked Brennan, “Did you see evidence of collusion, coordination and conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russian state actors?”
“I saw information and intelligence that was worthy of investigation by the bureau (FBI) to determine whether or not such cooperation or collusion was taking place,” Brennan replied. “I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign,” he added.
He declined to elaborate, saying the information was classified. The hearing was due to go into closed session to discuss classified information after Brennan’s public testimony.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Moscow tried to tilt the election campaign in Trump’s favor, including by hacking into and leaking the emails of senior Democrats. Moscow has denied the allegation. Trump has denied any collusion but the FBI and congressional probes into the Russia matter have dogged the early months of his presidency.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Republican John McCain pressed Director of National Intelligence Coats on the Washington Post report that Trump had asked Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to help him knock down the notion that there was evidence of such collusion.
Coats sidestepped the question but did not deny that Trump made the request. Coats said he and Trump “discuss a number of topics on a very regular basis” but “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president.”
The Post reported Coats and Rogers declined the request.
Coats said he had “no documents to make relevant,” when asked by a senator whether he would turn over memos about any conversations he might have had with Trump about the investigation into the Russia matter.
Coats also decried leaks relating to U.S. intelligence, telling the committee, “Lives are at stake in many instances and leaks jeopardize those lives.”
Brennan, who departed as CIA chief when Trump took office in January, said he believed he was the first U.S. official to raise the matter of election interference with the Russians, citing an Aug. 4, 2016 phone call he had with the head of Russia’s FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov.
He said he raised media reports of Russian attempts to meddle in the election with Bortnikov, who denied any involvement by Moscow. Brennan said he later briefed congressional leaders about the intelligence agencies’ finding on Russian interference in August and September.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)