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Ahead Of Comey Hearing, Intelligence Officials Testify Before Senate Committee


This morning, the Senate intelligence committee held a kind of dress rehearsal for the Comey hearing tomorrow. Several top intelligence officials were on hand. But unlike Comey, they refused to offer any details about their personal dealings with President Trump. That left some committee members feeling frustrated, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Today's hearing was supposed to be about whether to renew the law authorizing foreign surveillance. But not surprisingly, many of the questions were about President Trump. The committee's top Democrat, Mark Warner, was alarmed by news reports that Trump tried to enlist intelligence officials to help put the brakes on the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.


MARK WARNER: If any of this is true, it would be an appalling and improper use of our intelligence professionals.

HORSLEY: Trump also reportedly asked the head of the National Security Agency to make a public statement that there was no collusion between Russian hackers and the Trump campaign. News accounts say neither NSA Director Mike Rogers nor the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, complied with the president's request. Rogers told the Senate committee he never felt pressured by the White House.


MIKE ROGERS: I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate.

HORSLEY: But when senators pressed the intelligence officials on whether Trump had asked them to intervene, Rogers and Coats repeatedly brushed them off. Rogers' refusal drew an angry rebuke from Maine Senator Angus King.


ANGUS KING: Why are you not answering our questions?

ROGERS: Because I feel it is inappropriate, Senator?

KING: What you feel isn't relevant, Admiral. What's - what you feel isn't the answer. The answer is...

ROGERS: I stand accountable...

KING: Why are you not answering the questions? Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, then let's know about it. If there isn't, answer the questions.

HORSLEY: Coats suggested he might be willing to answer in a closed-door hearing without the television cameras rolling. New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich argued if the president did not ask officials to rein in the investigation, it ought to be easy to say so.


MARTIN HEINRICH: I think your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes.

DAN COATS: It's just - it's not a matter of unwillingness, Senator. It's a matter of...

HEINRICH: Mr. - it is a matter of unwillingness.

COATS: It's a matter of how I share it and whom I share it to (unintelligible) involved in that.

HEINRICH: So you don't think the American people deserve to know the answer to that question.

COATS: I think the investigations will determine that.

HORSLEY: Most of the complaints during the hearing came from Senate Democrats, but some Republicans were unhappy, too. Arizona Senator John McCain called it Orwellian that officials wouldn't talk publicly about accusations that were printed on the front page of the newspaper. And Florida's Marco Rubio grumbled that despite the official silence from intelligence leaders, the drip, drip, drip of news leaks continues.


MARCO RUBIO: And I actually think if what is being said to the media is untrue, then it is unfair to the president of the United States. And if it is true, that is something the American people deserve to know and we as an oversight committee need to know.

HORSLEY: The acting director of the FBI was also a witness before the committee today. Andrew McCabe was asked by Senator Heinrich if he could back up what Comey is expected to say.


HEINRICH: Did Director Comey ever share details of his conversations with the president with you. In particular, did Director Comey say that the president had asked for his loyalty?

HORSLEY: McCabe ducked the question, noting that a special counsel has now been appointed to investigate such matters. He added, senators can ask Comey himself about his conversations with Trump tomorrow, and Comey's prepared opening statement suggests the fired FBI director is ready to be much more forthcoming than today's witnesses. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.