NSA Director Mike Rogers and Intelligence Director Dan Coats, testifying in an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, skillfully dodged questions about whether President Trump had ever asked them to downplay the Russia investigation or intervene with FBI Director Comey.
Senator Mark Warner, while doggedly pursuing the matter, lacked the skill to ask the right questions to pin them down.
Admiral Rogers started by saying that he wouldn’t talk about either “theoreticals” and “specifics.” That pretty much covers the universe.
Despite taking this stance, Rogers saw fit to carry Trump’s water with a clever rhetorical dodge. Refusing to clarify or elaborate, Rogers volunteered that in his years of service, he had never been “directed to do anything” he believed to be illegal, immoral or inappropriate. He didn’t explain whether this was a “theoretical” or a “specific,” or why he was willing to make that statement, but no other.
The key word here is “directed.” Nobody has said that Trump “directed” anybody to curtail or terminate the Russia investigation. Rather, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other outlets have reported that Trump “asked” Rogers, Coats and Comey to do so.
The simple follow-up question for Warner should have been something like: “Thank you for informing us that President Trump never directed you downplay the investigation. My next question is whether he ever “asked” you do so, without putting it in terms of a direct order?”
Warner’s inability to ask the right follow-up question was in large part mooted when Republican Senator Marco Rubio stepped in. Rubio clearly caught the evasion embedded in Rogers’ statement that he had never been “directed.” He framed a question about whether Rogers had been “asked” to intervene, making it clear that he was distinguishing being “asked” from being “directed.”
But Rogers and Coats bobbed and weaved again. Knowing that they had been caught playing word games, they simply stood on their previous statements, which were entirely non-responsive to Rubio’s question.
Somebody should have asked Rogers why he was willing to deny having been directed, but not to comment on whether he had been asked. There is no logical or honorable justification for his willingness to use one verb, but not the other.
But there is an obvious explanation. And that is that the answer to whether he had ever been asked would have been different from the answer to whether he had been directed. Since he couldn’t issue a categorical denial to the “asked” question, he would have had to say more.
Does anybody doubt that, if Rogers had never been asked to interfere, he would have said so?
Read their answer as confirmation that Trump asked them to intervene.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.