Coats takes center stage with new questions of Trump interference

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is set to be grilled Wednesday on questions of whether President Donald Trump urged him to pressure former FBI Director James Comey to curb the investigation into Russian interference in the US elections, the latest development in a tumultuous 24 hours.

Coats testimony before the Senate intelligence committee has been scheduled for weeks, an event that was already expected to kick off two days of blockbuster hearings. But a report in the Washington Post that Trump went further than just asking Coats to rebut Comey in public increases the intrigue.

The latest report adds to questions of whether Trump interfered in the Russia investigation, just one day before Comey is set to testify on Trump’s request of him that he end his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

It’s a new twist for a hearing Wednesday that was set to be dominated by questions about the Russia investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is set to testify for the first time in public since he appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russia probe, and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers is also expected to face questions of whether Trump asked him to rebut Comey in public.

Ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mike Warner of Virginia, said the latest news on Coats “raises to me a huge amount of questions.”

“What I want to find out is, we’ve had press reports as recently as yesterday that maybe even more than once the President tried to intervene with Director Coats to ask him to either down play or dismiss the FBI investigation into contacts between trump officials,” Warner told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day” previewing his testimony.

DNI spokesman Brian Hale said in advance of the hearing, “Director Coats does not discuss his private conversations with the President.”

“However, he has never felt pressured by the President or anyone else in the Administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations,” Hale said in a statement.

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe is also scheduled to testify. Trump announced his long awaited decision for his nominee to be the permanent replacement — Christopher A. Wray — in a Tweet Wednesday morning.

The only silver lining for the Trump White House may be the formal focus of the hearing: re-authorization of legislation that allows for surveillance of foreign officials, an issue at the center of Trump’s own tweets against the Russia investigations.

The Trump administration scored a victory this week when it arrested a 25-year-old NSA contractor, Reality Winner, and charged her with espionage for allegedly leaking an NSA report showing Russian interference in the election.