WASHINGTON • FBI director James Comey has confirmed for the first time that it is investigating Russian interference in last year's presidential election and notably Moscow's possible collusion with President Donald Trump's campaign.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation "is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election", he told a hearing by the House Intelligence Committee yesterday.
"And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts," he said.
Mr Comey's disclosure confirmed longstanding reports that the FBI was probing the explosive charges that Mr Trump's stunning election victory over Mrs Hillary Clinton last November came on the back of Russian meddling.
US intelligence chiefs said in January that they were convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind that effort. But they had not commented on whether they were examining links between members of Mr Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
The Republican chairman of the panel, Mr Devin Nunes, said "the fact that Russia hacked US election- related databases comes as no shock to this committee". He also said the panel had "seen no evidence to date that officials from any campaign conspired with Russian agents".
But Mr Adam Schiff, the Democratic vice-chairman of the committee, detailed a list of alleged links and communications between the Trump team and Russia.
"Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible," he said.
"But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere."
Looming over the hearing was the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired last month for misleading Vice-President Mike Pence about the content of phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak a few weeks before Mr Trump's inauguration on Jan 20.
Media reports at the time, based on anonymous sources, said the subject of US sanctions against Russia was discussed.
Later, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian probes after acknowledging that he met the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Mr Trump pre-emptively weighed in on the proceedings, saying it was a political attack meant to undermine his administration.
"James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS," he tweeted yesterday morning, using an acronym for President of the United States and referring to the former director of national intelligence.
"The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!"
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG