G.O.P. Responds to F.B.I. Inquiry by Changing Subject, What Investigation?

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WASHINGTON — The headline from Capitol Hill on Monday was bracing: confirmation of a criminal investigation into connections between associates of a sitting president and Russian operatives during a presidential election.

But the response from Republicans was almost as striking: During hours of testimony in which James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, acknowledged the inquiry, they shrugged off its implications and instead offered a coordinated effort to defend President Trump by demanding a focus on leaks to news organizations.

Throughout the 5½-hour hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, as Democrats tried to highlight the criminal investigation, Republicans demanded a renewed focus on how its existence was revealed in news reports months ago.

When Democrats raised the issue of Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him — and Mr. Comey said the F.B.I. had “no information that supports those tweets” — Republicans railed against leaks.

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When Democrats pressed Mr. Comey on evidence of coordination between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russian operatives, Republicans questioned the F.B.I. director about how the names of those associates became public in news reports.

The political strategy appears clear: Republicans are betting that they can deflect attention from the investigation into the president’s campaign advisers by insisting that more needs to be done to prevent the leaking of classified material.

Again and again on Monday, the president’s allies urged Mr. Comey and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to answer for the illegal dissemination of information to reporters.

In one remarkable back and forth, Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, insinuated that several top Obama administration officials — including John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, and Benjamin J. Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser — might have been the source of leaks to news organizations.

“One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime,” Mr. Gowdy, whose own Benghazi investigation was known as a porous source of information to reporters, told Mr. Comey, who repeatedly refused to say that he was even investigating the release of classified information.

“I can’t say because I don’t want to confirm that that was classified information,” Mr. Comey said.

Whether the Republican approach works may depend on the outcome of the investigation itself, which remains shrouded in secrecy and is unlikely to be fully resolved within months or even years. That may lead to more leaks, and to a continuing effort by the president’s defenders to demand that they stop.

At one point in the hearing, Mr. Comey noted that leaks of sensitive government information have bedeviled the nation’s leaders since George Washington’s time, though he conceded that leakers have been “unusually active” in recent months.

“It does strike me there’s been a lot of people talking or at least reporters saying people are talking to them,” Mr. Comey said.

Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, nodded toward the importance of plugging leaks, saying that Republicans “will get no argument from this side on the importance of investigating, prosecuting leaks.”

But Democrats are determined to try to keep the focus on Mr. Trump, his campaign aides and Russia’s meddling in the election. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the panel, offered a long, detailed description of the publicly available reports of Russian activity and contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental.”

Republicans seemed much less interested in the answer.

The effort to change the subject began with Mr. Trump, who said on Twitter early Monday that the “real story” is the “leaking of Classified information.” Later, he asked: “What about all of the contact with the Clinton campaign and the Russians?”

At the White House, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, returned to the subject of leaks again and again during his daily briefing for reporters, echoing the Republican lawmakers from the presidential podium.

Mr. Spicer railed against the “illegal leak” of the names of some of Mr. Trump’s associates under investigation. And he insisted that news organizations are refusing to cover the real story from Monday’s hearing: the need for the federal government to stop national security leaks.

Mr. Spicer also evaded questions about Mr. Trump’s associates by repeatedly returning to what he said were Hillary Clinton’s ties to Russia, even though Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign was hurt by Russian operatives’ hacking.

Mr. Spicer accused journalists of ignoring stories alleging that the Democratic National Committee had not provided the F.B.I. access to its hacked servers, a claim Democratic officials deny. Mr. Comey said Monday that the investigators got the information they needed to investigate the hack.

“Why? What were they hiding? What were they concerned of?” Mr. Spicer said. In confusing, rapid-fire fashion, Mr. Spicer noted accusations about “donations that the Clintons received from Russians” and decisions by Mrs. Clinton to sell “tremendous amounts of uranium” to Russia.

“Where’s the concern about their efforts on the Hillary Clinton thing?” Mr. Spicer said.

Demands for leak investigations are nothing new in Washington, where the targets of critical stories — regardless of party — are often quick to try to expose the sources of those reports. Mr. Obama’s White House was particularly aggressive in seeking the source of leaks, prosecuting more whistle-blowers than all his predecessors combined.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, appears to have had a significant change of heart regarding leaks since he won the presidential election. During the campaign, Mr. Trump frequently praised WikiLeaks, the website that investigators believe was used by Russian operatives to leak emails from the D.N.C. and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman. At one rally in Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump declared, “I love WikiLeaks!”

Now, faced with leaks about the Russia investigation and the dissemination of other information from inside his administration, Mr. Trump appears increasingly frustrated that information is finding its way to reporters.

“Must find leaker now!” he said in a Twitter message Monday morning.

That, in a nutshell, was the message of the day for Republicans. But the strategy of deflection required many more words, repeated over and over for the cameras.

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