Former DNI Clapper: ‘I Did Not Know’ FBI Was Investigating Trump-Russia ‘Political Collusion’ Until March 20

By Susan Jones | May 15, 2017 | 8:06 AM EDT

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says he did not know the FBI was investigating possible coordination/collusion between Trump associates and Russian operatives until FBI Director James Comey confirmed that investigation on March 20. (Screen grab from CNN's "State of the Union.")

(CNSNews.com) – James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence for six-and-a-half years under President Obama, said on Sunday he “deferred” to the FBI director on counter-intelligence matters, and therefore, he “did not know about” the FBI’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives until late March, when Comey publicly confirmed that the investigation was ongoing.

According to its website, the DNI serves as head of the U.S. intelligence community, the principle intelligence adviser to the president, and is tasked with “integrating the efforts of the 17 elements of the Intelligence Community,” which includes the FBI.

Clapper told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday: “I deferred to the FBI director, both Director Mueller and then Director Comey, as to whether, when and what to tell me about any counter-intelligence investigations that they might have under way. So, it was kind of standard practice.”

Clapper has told Congress several times that through his last day in office, January 20, he was unaware of any intelligence that would indicate there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

President Trump has seized on Clapper’s testimony, tweeting this past Friday: “When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?”

Clapper told CNN on Sunday that the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the U.S. election, released in January with Clapper’s input, did not mention “political collusion.”

“We did not -- there was no -- no reporting in that intelligence community assessment about political collusion. We did not -- I did not have any evidence, did not know about the investigation.”

“You didn't even know that the FBI was conducting an investigation?” host Jake Tapper asked Clapper.

“I did not, and even more importantly, did not know the content or the status of that investigation,” Clapper replied.

“And there's all kinds of reasons why that's so, but this -- these are sensitive. We try to keep them as compartmented as possible. And, importantly, these invariably involve U.S. persons. And so we try to be very deferential to that," Clapper said.

“So, my statements should not be considered exculpatory, as -- to use a legal term.”

The intelligence community assessment released in January was prepared by the NSA, FBI, CIA and DNI.

It stated “with high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” It also said the Russians “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The intelligence community assessment said nothing about coordination or collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians.

Clapper told CNN’s Jake Tapper he did not know the FBI was investigating possible Trump-Russia coordination until FBI Director Comey confirmed the existence of that investigation before the House intelligence committee on March 20:

Comey told the committee on March 20: “I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

"So you did not even know that there was an FBI investigation until Comey testified (on March 20)?” Tapper asked Comey on Sunday:

“I did not know. That's right,” Clapper replied. “And that was my first official knowledge of such an investigation, particularly as it addressed potential political collusion.

"So, the bottom line is, I don't know if there was collusion, political collusion, and I don't know of any evidence to it, so I can't refute it and I can't confirm it."

Clapper said President Trump’s decision to fire Comey in the middle of the Russia probe is “very bothersome, very disturbing to me."

"I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally -- and that's the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system. And I think as well our institutions are under assault internally."

“Internally from the president?” Tapper asked.

“Exactly,” Comey said. “Well, I think, you know, the Founding Fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances. And I feel as though that's under assault and is eroding.

Clapper said he has exchanged emails with Comey since the FBI director was fired, but he would not say anything more about that.