Russia investigation on uncertain ground after FBI director's firing

The FBI investigation into whether any of President Trump’s campaign aides coordinated with Russian intelligence last year appeared on uncertain ground Wednesday as the Justice Department scrambled to find an interim replacement for FBI Director James B. Comey and the White House fended off accusations that Comey was fired to cripple the expanding inquiry.

Democratic senators and congressional aides say Comey was sacked without warning days after he asked Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, for more money and personnel for the counterintelligence investigation into alleged Russian meddling — an apparent sign that the nine-month-old inquiry was gaining traction.

Comey briefed some members of Congress after his meeting with Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia investigation. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself from the matter after news reports revealed he had failed to disclose at his Senate confirmation hearing that he’d had meetings with a Russian diplomat.

One Democratic congressional aide said Comey had asked Rosenstein for a “significant increase in resources.” A Justice Department spokesman confirmed the May 1 meeting but denied that Comey sought additional staff or money.

The conflicting accounts emerged amid reports that a federal grand jury in northern Virginia has issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn for records relating to Flynn’s business dealings with Russia, a development first reported by CNN.

Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, was forced to resign as Trump’s national security advisor in February after it was discovered that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russian officials.

Flynn faced another legal problem on Wednesday.

Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman, said the panel had issued a subpoena to Flynn to provide documents “relevant to the committee’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.”

The committee requested the documents last month but Flynn declined through his lawyer to cooperate, Burr and Warner said in a statement.

The criminal grand jury and the Senate subpoenas put more pressure on the White House, which already is facing three separate but overlapping investigations in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The Senate and House intelligence committees have held hearings into Russia’s role in the election, and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee is focusing on Trump associates’ business ties with Russian officials.

Trump has retained a Washington law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and instructed it to send a certified letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee, stating “that he has no connections to Russia," according to White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

The FBI has interviewed Flynn and at least one other former Trump associate. Carter Page, whom Trump identified last summer as a foreign policy consultant to his campaign, said in an email to The Times on Wednesday that FBI agents interviewed him in March.

Page, who helps run a New York investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas industry, said he agreed to be questioned by the FBI without a lawyer present “since [he’d] never done anything in Russia which is remotely close to being wrong or illegal.”

He said FBI agents asked him about an intelligence assessment released by the Obama administration, which concluded that senior Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, wanted to undermine the U.S. democratic process, hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump's campaign.

“They were upset that I didn’t buy the Obama Administration’s politically-motivated fake ‘intel’ report,” Page said.

The FBI opened its Russia investigation last July after learning that Page had business ties to officials in Putin’s government. The Washington Post has reported that the FBI obtained a classified warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Page’s communications out of concern he was meeting with known Russian intelligence agents.

The three congressional committees conducting Russia inquiries have promised to avoid interfering in the FBI counterintelligence investigation, but in the short term they may pose a bigger political threat to the White House. That’s because at least some of their work is public and early hearings have revealed a series of explosive details.

In March, for example, Comey first confirmed the existence of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, a disclosure that reportedly infuriated Trump.

In testimony last week, Comey went further and said the Russia investigation was being supervised by career prosecutors in the national security division of the Justice Department and the Eastern District of Virginia.

Comey wouldn’t answer whether the White House was cooperating with the inquiry.

The president has repeatedly and angrily denied that his campaign colluded with Russian intelligence agencies, and in his letter firing Comey on Tuesday, he went out of his way to say that Comey had assured him “on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.”

The White House has refused to say when Comey gave those assurances or under what circumstances.

The questions may come up again Thursday when Andrew McCabe, the FBI deputy director who rose to acting director after Comey’s ouster, testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee at an open hearing on global threats. The committee has invited Comey to testify next Tuesday in a closed hearing.

The Justice Department rushed Wednesday to name an interim FBI director, and a spokesman said McCabe and four other candidates were being considered. The choice could be announced as early as Thursday.

McCabe has a powerful foe. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday he did not think McCabe should run the FBI even for the short term because of a Justice Department inspector general’s inquiry into whether McCabe should have avoided involvement in his wife’s political campaign in Virginia last year.

The four others under consideration for interim director are William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; Adam Lee, who heads the FBI’s office in Richmond, Va.; Michael Anderson, who heads the FBI’s office in Chicago; and Paul Abbate, an assistant director for the FBI’s cyber-response branch.

The White House is separately looking at candidates Trump could nominate for a full 10-year term as FBI director, putting his own stamp on the nation’s premier law enforcement agency.

While Democrats warned that Comey’s abrupt ouster augured White House interference of an ongoing national security investigation, a retired FBI agent said Comey’s dismissal wouldn’t stop the Russia inquiry, at least in the short term.

Directors typically are briefed on the progress of investigations but don’t “meddle in the weeds,” said the former agent, who asked not to be identified when discussing Comey’s firing.

“You have to remember there are six people between a case agent and a director,” she said. “The agents who might be investigating ties to Russia and Trump — they’re still investigating. Nothing changed in their life today.”

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @JTanfani

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