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Former FBI No. 2 Defends Trump-Russia Probe

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified Tuesday that investigators believed in 2016 that Donald Trump might pose a national security threat, denying the agency tried to interfere politically in that election.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified Tuesday investigators believed in 2016 that Donald Trump might pose a national security threat, denying the agency tried to interfere politically in that election.

“We knew that the Russians had been targeting us,” McCabe said during a three-hour Senate hearing held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said the FBI had reason to believe the Trump campaign might be coordinating with Russia because campaign member George Papadopoulos said that Russians had damaging material on 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“That's why we initiated the Crossfire [Hurricane] investigation,” McCabe said.

McCabe, who worked at the FBI for more than 20 years, served as a director under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is the latest to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Lindsey Graham, in Republicans’ review of the FBI’s probe into allegations of collusion between Trump and Russia. 

McCabe noted Tuesday that as the FBI proceeded with the investigation, Trump took office and began to take adverse actions against its top agents, like firing former FBI Director James Comey.

“We had many reasons at that point to believe that the president might himself pose a danger to national security and that he might have engaged in obstruction of justice if the firing of the director and those other things were geared towards eliminating or stopping our investigation of Russian activity,” McCabe said.

The former deputy, who was fired by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the same night he planned to retire, maintained in his testimony that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election “provided pretty solid results, that verified that our concerns were valid.”

“We opened a case to investigate and try to mitigate that threat and to find out what the Russians might have done. Let me be very clear: we did not open a case because we liked one candidate or didn't like the other one,” McCabe said. “We did not open a case because we intended to stage a coup or overthrow the government. We did not open a case because we thought it might be interesting. Or because we wanted to drag the FBI into a heated political contest.”

Graham repeated several times during Tuesday’s hearing that his concern was why FBI officials did not investigate a CIA tip alleging that Clinton had endorsed a plan to link Trump to Russia with the goal of deflecting media attention away from her use of a private email server while she was secretary of State. 

The South Carolina Republican claimed the task was handed off to FBI agent Peter Strzok, who had sent personal texts criticizing Trump.  

“Nobody took allegations from the CIA seriously about Hillary Clinton's effort to sign off on a plan. It may not be true, but somebody should have looked at it. Nobody cared over there,” Graham said.

Democratic senators bashed their GOP colleagues for reinvestigating Crossfire Hurricane for the fourth time instead of investigating more pressing issues.

“More than four years have passed since the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane, and multiple investigations have confirmed that the FBI was correct to do so. So I think, Mr. Chairman, it's time to turn the page on Crossfire Hurricane,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.  

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, called attention to the 2020 election and how Republicans have backed Trump’s refusal to concede to President-elect Joe Biden.

Senator Dick Durbin also slammed Republicans’ focus on the 2016 election.  

“For this Senate Judiciary Committee, it's all about Hillary. It's all about outgoing President Trump's bizarre theories of justice. This is a last-ditch, desperate undertaking to deal with President Trump's grievances about that election,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, defended the committee’s investigation and said it was “looking at maybe the biggest scandal in the history of the FBI.” 

Republicans on the committee also claimed their examination of McCabe was a search for someone to take responsibility for the approval of a warrant for the surveillance of Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Page was named repeatedly in the so-called Steele dossier that alleged close interactions between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, asked McCabe who should be held accountable for the submission of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application that contained misinformation about Page.

“Senator, I think all of the people involved in this work should be and have been held accountable,” McCabe said.

Durbin agreed that Page’s surveillance was in poor taste but said the issue had been examined already.

“We've all conceded the point. Carter Page was not treated properly, both sides of the aisle said as much. How many more times do we need to say it?” he said. “Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee that we sit on here hasn't held a single oversight hearing on the Trump administration's Justice Department in this Congress, any issues we might want to raise. I can think of a few.”

McCabe emphasized to senators that Russia is still a threat to U.S. elections.

“The Russians were successful beyond their wildest imagination in accomplishing their goals in 2016. Their successes serve as an encouragement to other hostile nations intent on undermining our security, safety and stability,” he said. “The Russians and others will be back. Please do not let the recent calm of the 2020 election lower the nation into a false sense of security.”

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in June to approve more than 50 subpoenas as part of a broad inquiry into the origins of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation over objections from Democrats who called the probe a political stunt. 

The committee has also questioned other top officials involved in the investigation, most notably Comey, who in September took responsibility during his testimony for some errors the investigation while maintaining the probe was overall done “by the book.”

Graham's is one of two GOP-led Senate committees investigating Crossfire Hurricane. The other is the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

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