Former CIA Director John Brennan testified Tuesday in a U.S. House hearing that Russia “brazenly interfered” in the 2016 presidential election and publicly acknowledged for the first time his concern about their influence.
“I should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our elections of 2016,” Brennan said in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee.
Brennan was CIA director from 2013 until Donald Trump took office in January.
He testified there was evidence during his tenure that members of Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials, a fact he warned congressional leaders of both parties about at the time.
“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Brennan told legislators.
“It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
“I don’t know whether such collusion existed” between the Russians and members of Trump’s campaign.
But upon questioning from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., Brennan said: “I saw interaction that in my mind raised questions of whether it was collusion. It was necessary to pull threads,” he added.
He said he passed evidence collected by the CIA to the FBI and briefed the so-called Gang of Eight — the congressional leaders of both parties and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, about Russia’s efforts last summer.
During his opening statement, Brennan recalled a phone call with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s security service, in August 2016, when he mentioned published reports about Russian interference in the election.
“I told Mr. Bortnikov that if Russia had such a campaign underway, it was certain to backfire,” Brennan said. “I said if Russia pursued this course it would destroy” improved relations between the two countries.
During the call, Bortnikov denied his country’s interference and mentioned Russia often is blamed for activity it had nothing to do with.
Brennan warned Bortnikov again and the foreign leader repeated his denial but said he would take Brennan’s concern to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brennan testified.
“I believe I was the first U.S. official to brace Russia on this issue,” Brennan said.
Brennan briefed President Barack Obama and Trump in January on an intelligence community report revealing that Putin had personally ordered an “influence campaign” targeting the presidential election.
Brennan also said Trump’s reported sharing of classified intelligence with Russia officials in the White House on May 10 violated “protocols.” He said he was “very concerned” about the disclosure of information. And he said there appears to be “very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling and they need to be tracked down.”
Brennan was also scheduled to testify behind closed doors to allow potentially classified information to be discussed with lawmakers.
The House committee’s last hearing was March 20, when then-FBI Director James Comey testified that the bureau is probing Russian influence in the election and possible collusion with Trump campaign staffers.
Since then, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., recused himself from the Russia investigation after the House Committee on Ethics said it was investigating whether he disclosed sensitive information about the investigation to the White House.
And since the last hearing Trump fired Comey, the Department of Justice appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s Russia investigation and it was revealed the president allegedly tried to halt the FBI’s investigation into his former national security adviser, who was fired over conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.