A Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday morning devolved into a heated back and forth between Democratic senators and the leaders of the NSA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, after those intelligence community chiefs refused to comment on reports that the Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to interfere in the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
Nearly two hours into the hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats, challenged FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe, NSA Director Michael Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats for refusing to answer to the committee tasked with overseeing their agencies.
“I would like a legal justification for your refusal to answer,” King said. “Why are you not answering these questions?”
“Is there an invocation of executive privilege?” King added, referring to the possibility that Trump would attempt to stop them from testifying by claiming their conversations are legally protected from disclosure.
Rogers answered that he is “not aware of” an attempt to invoke executive privilege, but said he is in touch with the White House counsel’s office on the matter of what he can and cannot say in a public hearing. “To be honest, I didn’t get a definitive answer,” he said.
Pressed on the question of executive privilege, Rogers shut down King’s line of questioning. “I’m not interested in repeating myself, sir,” he said. “And I don’t mean that in a contentious way.”
“Well, I do mean it in a contentious way,” King snapped. “I don’t understand why you are not answering our questions. You can’t— When you were confirmed, before the Armed Services Committee, you took an oath. ‘Do you solemnly swear to give the committee the truth, the fully truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?’ You answered yes to that.”
Rogers answered that he “feel[s] it’s inappropriate” to reveal details of his private conversations with the president and with Comey in an open hearing.
“What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral,” King fumed. “What you feel isn’t the answer.”
King then tried the same line of questioning with Coats, asking: “What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?”
“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” Coats admitted. “But I’m more than willing to sit before this committee during its investigative process in a closed session and answer your question.”
He then quickly added that he would first have to “work through the legal counsel at the White House” to determine what he could say even behind closed doors. Rogers echoed this caveat.
Watch the heated exchange:
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.