Trump's 'big gray cloud' means things will likely get worse before they get better

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., center, flanked by the committee's ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, during the committee's hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
J. Scott Applewhite | AP

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, after spending hours trying to defend President Donald Trump, closed his panel's hearing on a note of bipartisan pessimism.

There's "a big gray cloud" over the Trump administration, said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. That cloud got darker on Monday.

After months of scattered media reports, FBI Director James Comey formally, publicly confirmed that the bureau is conducting a criminal investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 presidential election and whether associates of the Trump campaign participated in that effort.

That means, just two months into his term, a new president who lost the popular vote and labors under historically low approval ratings faces real danger that things will get worse before they get better.

More than that, Comey joined the long list of senior figures in both parties who have discredited Trump's charge that President Barack Obama had wiretapped his phone at Trump Tower — "No evidence" of that, he said.

Comey also rebutted the suggestion from White House press secretary Sean Spicer that British intelligence officials may have conducted such surveillance.

Thus, Trump began the ninth week of his presidency facing heightened legal questions about his campaign and political questions about his credibility. With the Senate Intelligence Committee conducting its own probe, the president's early Monday tweet asserting that "Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story" rings increasingly hollow.

Nunes and his Republican colleagues mostly sought to play defense for their party's president. Questioning Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, they sought to redirect attention from Russian interference to what Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina called "felonious" leaks of classified information about the matter to the news media.

Comey and Rogers also condemned such leaks. But they declined to confirm that any had occurred or echo Gowdy's suggestion that former aides to Obama were responsible.

Comey noted that the investigation had begun last July, though he declined to name any individuals under scrutiny. Among associates of Trump who had been linked in news accounts to meetings or discussions with Russian officials or operatives are former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former foreign policy advisor Carter Page, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and political consultant Roger Stone.

What no one yet knows is when the investigation might conclude, or whether any of Trump's associates engaged in wrongdoing — criminal or otherwise. Yet Comey's public confirmation on Monday increases pressure on both the White House and Republican leaders in Congress, who so far have resisted calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the matter rather than the Trump Justice Department.

That pressure is the "big gray cloud" that Nunes mentioned. It poses dangers not just for the administration itself, but also for the administration's shared agenda with congressional Republicans on health care and tax cuts. That's why Nunes urged Comey to complete his work, and clear the cloud, as soon as possible.