Republican and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee were left frustrated and fuming on Wednesday, after a hearing in which several key intelligence officials refused to shed any light on their communication with President Trump, Trump's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey, and Trump's efforts to downplay the FBI's investigation into Russia.
The hearing was supposed to explore arguments for reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but Democrats in particular questioned Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers on whether they were pressured by Trump to downplay the FBI probe.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also got into the act near the end of the hearing, but asking Coats if he would talk about any aspect of a Washington Post story from Tuesday that said Trump asked Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
The article, which cited anonymous sources, was one of several published in recent weeks detailing the contents of private conversations high-ranking members of the intelligence community had with Trump. Many of those details were soon confirmed in testimony from Comey that he will deliver on Thursday.
But Coats and Rogers, on multiple occasions, declined to detail their interactions with the president, despite repeated inquiries. Coats also told McCain that, "just because it's published in the Washington Post doesn't mean it's now unclassified."
"It shows what kind of an Orwellian existence we live in," McCain said. "It's detailed, as you know from reading the stories, as to when you met, what you discussed, etc., etc. Yet, in a public hearing before the American people, we can't talk about what was described in detail in this morning's Washington Post."
It was one of several clashes between senators and the officials that resulted in no new information, as the officials argued either that they couldn't talk about classified information in an open setting, or that they did not feel comfortable relaying private conversations with Trump.
"I come out of this hearing with more questions than when I went in," Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's vice chairman, said at the end of the hearing. "[Coats and Rogers] were willing to characterize your conversations with the president. You didn't feel pressure, but you wouldn't share the content."
During one exchange, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked McCabe to relay to the committee his conversations with Comey, which McCabe didn't feel he was at liberty to do.
"You're not invoking executive privilege, and obviously they're not classified," Heinrich said. "This is the oversight committee. Why would it not be appropriate for you to share that conversation with us?"
"I'll let Director Comey speak for himself in front of this committee," McCabe replied, referencing Comey's upcoming testimony before lawmakers.
Heinrich, though, was unsatisfied with the response. "Your unwillingness to share that conversation is an issue," he said.
Heinrich then probed Coats about his own conversations with Trump, and asked him whether the conversation with Trump occurred, as had been reported in the press.
"You realize, and obviously, this is not releasing any classified information, but you realize how simple it would be to say no, that never happened?" Heinrich asked Coats.
But Coats declined to respond, saying instead it would be "inappropriate" for him to discuss his conversations with Trump in an open session.
"It's not a matter of unwillingness," Coats said. "It's a matter of how I share and with whom I share it to, and when there are ongoing investigations I think it's inappropriate to divulge that."
Similar back-and-forths were repeated throughout the hearing, as Democrats attempted to learn more about the interactions Coats and Rogers had with Trump.
During separate exchanges with McCabe, Coats and Rogers, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked each of the officials to describe the conversations they had with Comey and Trump.
McCabe demurred and said the conversation fell within the purview of the special counsel, which is now overseeing the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"I don't understand why the special counsel takes precedence of the U.S. Congress, in an investigative and oversight committee," King replied. "Can you explain that distinction? Why does the special counsel get deference and not this committee?"
King applied the same line of questioning to Rogers and Coats, and asked the two for the legal justification for their refusal to answer questions pertaining to their conversations with Trump. Both Rogers and Coats said they needed to check with the White House counsel to determine if the president planned to invoke executive privilege, which would prevent them from discussing their conversations with Trump.
King, however, was unsatisfied with their answers, and invoked the oath both men took during their confirmation hearings to always tell the truth.
"I'm not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it's appropriate. I do not feel I should answer,'" King said. "I want to understand the legal basis. You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and today you are refusing to do so."
On multiple occasions, McCabe said he needed to be careful with his answers to avoid interfering with the special counsel's probe. The Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation after Trump fired Comey last month.
"I think that those matters also begin to fall within the scope of issues being investigated by the special counsel, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on those today," McCabe said at one point regarding his conversations with Comey.
Rogers and Coats both pointed to discussions they needed to have with the White House counsel before divulging the details of conversations they had with Trump.
The White House said earlier this week it would not invoke executive privilege over Comey's testimony, but Rogers and Coats indicated further conversations with the White House might be needed to ensure the president was not planning to do so regarding their testimony. But both men also noted that their conversations with Trump were classified and not appropriate to discuss in an open forum.
"I do have to acknowledge because of the sensitive nature of the aspects of this, I need to be talking to the general counsel in the White House," Rogers said. "I hope we can come to a position where we can have this dialogue. I welcome that dialogue."
They also said they would be willing to relay more information in a closed session, which Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he would be willing to hold in the near future.