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Disenchanted Democrats Criticize FBI Role in Presidential Election

Members of Congress arrive for a closed-door intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 13, 2017.

Frustrated Democrats on Friday left the House of Representatives' first full intelligence briefing on Russian interference in the U.S. election disenchanted with the FBI's leadership throughout the controversy and asking how Congress could move forward.

“My confidence in the ability of the FBI director to lead this agency through the troubled times that lie ahead has been shaken,” Congressman Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia, told reporters outside the classified briefing led by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey.

Comey has been at the center of controversy over the results of the 2016 election, drawing criticism from many Democrats who believe his late October announcement of a new probe in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server directly harmed her chances of winning the presidency.

Johnson said he had left the briefing with many unanswered questions and a need for follow-up.

“You need a competent FBI investigation of what has occurred and you need a leader of that agency who maintains the respect of the legislative branch,” he said.

Congressional efforts to investigate Russian interference have stalled in recent days. On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee reversed its earlier decision and opted to open an investigation into Russian interference.

A majority of Senate and House Democrats have called for the creation of a bipartisan commission.

President-elect Donald Trump said for the first time Wednesday that he believed Russia had played a role in the U.S. election, telling reporters at a press conference, “I think it was Russia.” But later he said it could have been another country.

Members of Congress stow their cellphones and electronic devices before entering a closed-door intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 13, 2017.
Members of Congress stow their cellphones and electronic devices before entering a closed-door intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 13, 2017.

Next steps?

Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, said that there had been no discussion about a future investigation in the briefing, but that he wanted to see further probing into the 35-page, uncorroborated memo released by several news organizations earlier this week, alleging Russia had incriminating financial and personal information on Trump.

“I think it would be negligence on the part of our intelligence officials not to pursue that and try to find out the veracity or non-veracity of it,” Sherman said.

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she also hoped to see action on the issue.

“Let's hope that any further investigation will remove all doubt that the Russians were not successful in affecting policy in the United States as they affected politics in the United States,” Pelosi said in a press briefing Friday.

But for Democrats leaving the briefing, the lack of further action only deepened their concerns about the U.S. response to Russian interference.

“Russia was very involved in the election and I'm very disappointed in what was presented,” Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, said.

Democrats were joined by some of their Republican colleagues who said the briefing revealed long-term concerns about Russia's ability to undermine democracy in the United States and around the world.

“It confirmed my suspicions about our problems and we seriously have some problems,” said Representative Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas.

“I think it's a wake-up call beyond our security officials, when we look at what they've been doing in Europe and wake up to the fact that they've been doing it in America,” Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, told reporters.

Aggressive, pointed questions

Coffman, one of a handful of Republicans who avoided associating with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election season, described House members' reactions to the briefing as aggressive, with pointed questions about the role Russia had played in the election of Trump.

“I think they consider the United States an adversary and I hope the incoming administration recognizes that fact,” Coffman said.

But for other Republicans, the briefings provided needed clarity on the intelligence community's commitment to investigating the interference.

“It was made clear to us that there were attempts by the Russians as well as other nations to access our systems and possibly try to influence the outcomes, but there was no correlation that there was any direct attempt to address the voter tallies,” Congressman Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia, said.

The assertion seemed to give little comfort to Democrats departing Congress for a four-day break ahead of Inauguration Day next week.

Asked if he believed in the ability of the FBI to thoroughly examine Russian interference, Charlie Crist, a freshman Democratic congressman from Florida, said, “I want to, I have concerns. ... I'm a hopeful American."

Crist is a former governor of Florida.