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Intelligence Chiefs Won't Discuss Private Conversations With Trump In Open Hearing

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe (left), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers are seated during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Wednesday.

Updated at 1:01 p.m. ET

In an often contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, two intelligence chiefs testified Wednesday that they've never felt pressured to take improper actions regarding intelligence matters, including the investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But the two officials, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the head of the National Security Agency, Adm. Mike Rogers, declined to say whether President Trump ever asked them to downplay the Russia investigation.

At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner asked Coats and Rogers about media reports that Trump asked them to intervene regarding the Justice Department investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the broader inquiry surrounding Russia.

Both declined repeatedly to discuss their conversations with Trump, answering in general terms.

"In the three-plus years I have been director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate," Rogers said. "I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so."

Coats responded in a similar vein.

"In my time of service," Coats said, "I have never been pressured, I've never felt pressure to intervene or interfere, in any way, with shaping intelligence in a political way."

Warner, along with several other senators, kept pressing and ultimately expressed frustration with the intelligence chiefs.

There are "reports, that nobody has laid to rest here, that the president of the United States has intervened directly in an ongoing FBI investigation and we've got no answers from any of you," Warner said.

Contentious Hearing

The hearing was often contentious, particularly when Democratic senators questioned the intelligence officials.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, intervened at one point during a sharp exchange between California Democrat Kamala Harris and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

"The chair is going to exercise its right to allow the witnesses to answer the question, and committee is on notice to provide witnesses the courtesy, which has not been extended all the way across," Burr said.

Republican John McCain of Arizona took a softer approach, drawing chuckles when he asked Coats, "Do you want to tell us any more about the Russian involvement in our election that we don't already know from reading The Washington Post?"

Coats did not offer any details, but said, "Just because it's in The Washington Post doesn't mean it's declassified."

The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding two days of closely watched hearings that might — or might not — shed new light on the state of the Russia investigation.

The president has repeatedly called for an end to inquiries into Russian election meddling in his public remarks. But Democratic senators, in particular, want to know what he's told intelligence officials in private discussions.

The committee is holding a closed session after lunch with staff about the technicalities of the law that allows the intelligence community to surveil foreign targets. The intelligence chiefs indicated they would be more comfortable speaking in a closed environment and Burr suggested during the hearing that he would schedule time for the four men to return for a closed session.

Two Days Of Hearings

The hearings Wednesday and Thursday are significant because stories about the Russia investigation have dribbled out piecemeal, often based on anonymous sources. The intelligence chiefs are all key figures in the investigation, but have rarely spoken publicly. Over these two days, four current intelligence officials, along with one former one, will all be testifying under oath before the same Senate panel.

Trump reportedly asked Coats and Rogers to state publicly that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Neither official has done so.

Citing these reports, Warner said in his opening statement:

"If any of this is true, it would be an appalling and improper use of our intelligence professionals — an act that could erode the public's confidence in our intelligence institutions. The (intelligence community) fiercely prides itself on its apolitical service to the country. Any attempt by the White House or even the president himself to exploit this community as a tool for political purposes is deeply, deeply troubling."

While Democrats have focused on possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, Republicans have focused on leaks about the investigation.

The president has frequently railed against leaks, and a government contractor, Reality Winner, was charged Monday with leaking an NSA document that details Russian efforts to penetrate U.S. election systems.

The former FBI director, James Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, is scheduled to testify before the same committee Thursday morning.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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