Washington: The White House doubled down Sunday on US President Donald Trump’s contention that president Barack Obama tapped the then-candidate’s phones during the 2016 election campaign, calling for Congress to probe potential executive-branch abuses of power.
Trump relied on conservative media sources, notably Breitbart News, to make his explosive statements on Twitter about Obama, a person familiar with the situation said. In officially stepping up their concerns, the White House again produced no evidence to back up allegations of illegal activities that Obama has denied.
“Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement on Sunday.
Trump “is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” Spicer said.
A spokesman for Obama said Saturday that Trump’s claims were “simply false”, while lawmakers urged the president, if he had evidence of a wiretap, to make it public or at least disclose it to relevant Congressional committees.
Trump kicked off the furor with a series of four tweets early Saturday.
“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,’’ Trump wrote on his personal Twitter account. “Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!’’
The president, who regularly has access to classified information and intelligence briefings, relied on a Breitbart News report for his information about the alleged wiretap, according to the person.
Breitbart, the media outlet previously run by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, published a story Friday outlining actions supposedly taken by the Obama administration to monitor Trump Tower in New York during the campaign. The story, which claimed the moves were aimed at undermining Trump’s candidacy, referenced commentary by radio host Mark Levin that made similar claims.
Neither Breitbart News nor Levin cited independent reporting to back up the assertions.
“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for Obama, said in an emailed statement on Saturday. “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, also denied Trump’s claims on Saturday. “No President can order a wiretap,” Rhodes wrote on Twitter in a response back to Trump.
“Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
Trump is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and will return to Washington Sunday afternoon.
After recent news stories highlighted a number of meetings between Trump associates and Russian government officials during the 2016 election, Trump has trained his Twitter account on top Democrats, seeking to highlight their actions instead. On Friday he sent tweets deriding previous contacts between Moscow’s envoy to Washington and Democrats including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat in the Senate.
Comparing Obama to former President Richard Nixon during the 1970s Watergate scandal, Trump took his on-and-off feud with his predecessor to a new level in missives to his 26 million followers.
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!,” one tweet said. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
The tweets were issued two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he’d recuse himself from any investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
‘Crisis of public trust’
Trump’s flurry of tweets sparked further concern by some in Congress, who called on the president to be more forthcoming about his wiretapping accusations.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who has been a Trump critic, said Saturday that Trump’s allegations suggest that even if Obama wasn’t involved, a court may have seen sufficient evidence to authorize a wiretap—a potentially groundbreaking development.
Any legal wiretapping would have been initiated by intelligence agencies, with court approval required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or by a federal judge as part of a criminal investigation. According to federal law, a FISA court approving a wiretap of Trump’s home or offices would have had to find probable cause that the facility was being used on behalf of a foreign power, or that Trump’s associates were involved in espionage.
Such a wiretap could have been obtained without Obama’s involvement, if intelligence agencies determined—and got a court to agree—that Trump or his associates were acting on behalf of a foreign government. Trump has denied colluding with Russia, saying he has no links to the country.
FISA court order
“If it was with a legal FISA court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the court found credible,” Sasse said in a statement. “The president should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives be made available.”
The US is “in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the president’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots,” Sasse said.
Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said Trump had “no evidence” to support his “spectacularly reckless” claims.
“No matter how much we hope and pray that this President will grow into one who respects and understands the Constitution, separation of powers, role of a free press, responsibilities as the leader of the free world, or demonstrates even the most basic regard for the truth, we must now accept that President Trump will never become that man,” Schiff said in a statement.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, said on “Fox News Sunday” that he had “not seen any evidence” of either a FISA or FBI wiretap of the Trump campaign.
Pelosi reiterated her calls for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. “The Deflector-in-Chief is at it again,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter. “An investigation by an independent commission is the only answer.”
The New York Times in October said the FBI was investigating Russia’s possible role in the US campaign, and said agents had scrutinized advisers close to Trump for any connections to Russian financial figures. The newspaper, in an 31 October story, said the FBI pursued the possibility of a secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank. The Times said the FBI “came to doubt” such a channel existed.
Levin, a former Reagan administration aide, highlighted news stories by the Times and other media outlets in asserting Thursday that the Obama administration put the Trump campaign under surveillance. “The question is: Was Obama surveilling top Trump campaign officials during the election?” Levin asked. “We absolutely know this is true.”
Breitbart’s follow-up referenced Levin’s claims and outlined a number of published news accounts, dating back to June 2016, about alleged actions taken against Trump by intelligence agencies under Obama.
Democrats and some Republicans have called for further scrutiny into links between the Trump team and the Russian government during the 2016 election. Lawmakers from both parties called for Sessions to recuse himself after news reports showed that he met with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, twice last year, after denying meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing. Top Democrats called for Sessions, who said the meetings were not campaign-related, to resign.
News reports found that other Trump associates, including Carter Page, an energy consultant and foreign policy adviser, had met with Kislyak during the 2016 campaign, contradicting previous statements by the campaign. US intelligence agencies previously determined that Russia directed cyber attacks to meddle in the US election, benefiting Trump.