- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

FBI Director James B. Comey frustrated Capitol Hill lawmakers seeking new details on the handling of the notorious opposition dossier on then-candidate Donald Trump, while warning that Russia will likely try to interfere in future U.S. elections given the confusion it was able to sow in 2016.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, pressed the FBI director over questions of who paid for the dossier, compiled by a former British intelligence officer, and what was the motivation of those writing the checks. Many of the more explosive charges in the 35-page dossier have been proven wrong, but Mr. Comey did tell lawmakers that the bureau’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and the possible links to Trump campaign aides remains active.

Various reports have suggested the dossier, reports of which were included in briefings given to Mr. Trump and President Obama after the election, was first funded by anti-Trump Republicans during the party primaries. Once Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, Democrats allegedly kept it alive. At some point, according to unnamed intelligence and law enforcement sources, the FBI used the dossier to justify surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Since February, Mr. Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has made multiple requests to the FBI to explain its relationship to dossier author Christopher Steele and the Washington-based research firm Fusion GPS that is alleged to have subcontracted the former spy to compile the dossier.

Earlier this week Mr. Grassley complained in a letter to Mr. Comey that there “appear to be material inconsistencies” in the accounts given by the FBI and other Justice Department documents on how U.S. investigators first linked up with Mr. Steele.

On Wednesday, Mr. Grassley and committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, hammered the FBI chief on the subject.

“Do you agree with me that Fusion was involved in preparing the dossier against Donald Trump?” Mr. Graham asked. “[And] that would be interfering in our election by the Russians?”

“I don’t want to say,” Mr. Comey replied.

Mr. Grassley began the hearing by wondering aloud if alleged improprieties between the Trump campaign and the Russians “were just a partisan smear campaign that manipulated our government into chasing conspiracy theories.” When it came time to question Mr. Comey, he cut right to the chase.

“Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia,” he asked, “did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

Mr. Comey paused briefly, then replied: “That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum.”

While Mr. Comey dodged the dossier questions, he said the bureau believed the threat to the U.S. and other Western democracies from Russian disinformation campaigns was real. He said the U.S. intelligence community still has “high confidence” that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other organizations during the campaign.

“One of the lessons the Russians may have drawn from this is that this works,” he said. “I expect to see them back in 2018, and especially in 2020.”

Mr. Comey will testify again this week — on Thursday — behind closed doors at the House Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Trump and his aides have repeatedly denied any connections to Russia during the 2016 campaign. In a tweet late Tuesday, Mr. Trump revived his charge that the entire Russia influence story had been fanned by Democrats stunned by the loss of Hillary Clinton in November.

“The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?” he wrote on Twitter.

President Vladimir Putin, speaking with reporters in Sochi during a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also dismissed charges the Kremlin tried to tilt the U.S. vote in Mr. Trump’s favor.

“No one has been able to prove this,” Mr. Putin said. “These are just rumors used for internal political struggles in the U.S.”

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