By Katie Bo Williams - 03-20-17 10:39 AM EDT
FBI Director James Comey on Monday morning confirmed that the bureau is investigating Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election - including any links or coordination between members of Donald Trump's campaign and Moscow.
The bombshell revelation puts an end to months of roiling speculation and frustration on the part of Democrats, who saw the director's silence as a double-standard after Comey's repeated disclosures in the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server.
In a dramatic moment at the beginning of a hotly anticipated House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. election, Comey announced that he had been authorized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to break bureau policy and publicly disclose the probe.
"As you know our practice is not to confirm the existence of an ongoing investigation," he said. "But in usual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so."
A palpable ripple of anticipation went through the hearing room as Comey continued: "This is one of those circumstances."
But he declined to provide more details, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.
"I can promise you we will follow the facts wherever they lead," Comey vowed.
The FBI investigation will include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed, Comey said. It began it late July, according to the director.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who was a member of the executive committee of Trump's transition team, has flatly denied any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The committee's ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), has said that it is too early in the investigation to rule out the possibility, arguing that there is "circumstantial" evidence of such ties.
Comey confirmed on Monday that the bureau and the DOJ have briefed the Intelligence Committee in a classified setting on details of the investigation. He called the step "unprecedented."
It is the bureau's policy never to discuss an ongoing investigation - but Democrats say the FBI flagrantly ignored that policy last year with Comey's disclosures regarding the Clinton investigation.
The director has been under fierce pressure to disclose the existence of the Trump probe - pressure he has up until now resisted. After a meeting with House members behind closed doors earlier in the year, he was described by Democratic attendees as "unflinching" and "defiant."
The FBI investigation now threatens to create a rift with the White House.
In January, Trump - who was undoubtedly helped during the campaign by Comey's eleventh-hour disclosures about the Clinton probe - reportedly asked him to stay on as head of the bureau.
But late last month, the president took aim at the FBI after Comey reportedly refused to dispute a New York Times story that said agents had uncovered contact between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.
Comey reportedly called White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and said that while the story was wrong, the FBI would not put out a statement.
Trump blasted the FBI on Twitter for being "totally unable to stop the national security 'leakers' that have permeated our government for a long time."
Meanwhile, the DOJ's inspector general has launched an investigation into whether Comey broke bureau policy with his various disclosures.
--This report was updated at 11:19 a.m.