WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 07: (L-R) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats...
Chip Somodevilla

Top intel officials hide scandal info from congressional oversight

The timing was fortuitous. We’d already seen reports that Donald Trump asked the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to publicly intervene in the pushback to the Russia scandal, and those reports were advanced yesterday morning with evidence that the president also encouraged Coats to intervene with the FBI – which is the crime that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

We were fortunate, then, that Coats and Rogers were scheduled to appear yesterday in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where they could answer oversight questions about this very issue.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 6/7/17, 9:00 PM ET

Trump officials refuse to answer Senate questions about Trump

Rachel Maddow shows how top Trump intelligence officials refused to answer questions about Donald Trump trying to stop the Mike Flynn investigation, even though they had no legal justification for refusing to answer.
At least, that is, in theory. As Rachel noted on last night’s show, Coats and Rogers refused to provide senators with the information sought by the committee. It led to a striking exchange between Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and two of the nation’s top intelligence officials.

KING: Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the president of the United States of executive privilege? Is there, or not?

ROGERS: Not that I’m aware of.

KING: Then why are you not answering?

ROGERS: Because I feel it is inappropriate, senator.

KING: What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral.

It’s important to understand the context and the setting. In an oversight hearing, when senators demand non-classified information from administration officials, the officials have limited options. They can (1) answer the question; (2) plead the 5th; or (3) refuse to answer as the result of executive privilege. Michael Rogers, however, adopted his own posture, insisting he didn’t “feel” it was “appropriate” to provide the information.

Coats tried a similar line, saying he doesn’t “believe” it’d be appropriate to answer questions about the president’s alleged request about intervening in an FBI investigation. The Maine senator asked, “What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?”

Coats replied, “I’m not sure I have a legal basis.”

All of this made for a dramatic spectacle, but it’s important to come to grips with the substance of what we witnessed. The Director of National Intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency answer to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The panel has oversight authority, not only when it comes to investigating the Russia scandal, but over the U.S. intelligence community itself.

And yesterday, these leading officials refused to provide the committee with non-classified information, saying only that they didn’t “feel” or “believe” it’d be “appropriate” to answer important questions – despite having no legal basis for such a refusal.

If this is new posture the Trump administration intends to take with congressional oversight – officials will simply refuse to answer questions, because they feel like it – the scope of the crisis facing our political system is taking a turn for the worse.

Angus King, Intelligence and Scandals

Top intel officials hide scandal info from congressional oversight