WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The White House on Sunday demanded that Congress, which is already investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, also examine whether former President Barack Obama abused his executive powers in connection with that campaign.
The request followed President Donald Trump’s claim Saturday that his predecessor had tapped the telephones at Trump Tower. Trump offered no supporting evidence, a spokesman for Obama said the claim is “simply false” and lawmakers in both parties asked for proof.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama, said Sunday that no such wiretap activity was carried out against Trump as a candidate or against his campaign.
“Absolutely, I can deny it,” said Clapper, who left the White House when Trump took office Jan. 20.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the request in a statement Sunday that referred to “very troubling” reports “concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election.” He did not respond to inquiries about those reports.
Trump said the wiretapping happened in October at the New York skyscraper where he ran his campaign and transition.
“President Donald J. 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.
Spicer’s chief deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said she thinks Trump is “going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential.” If the conduct alleged is confirmed, Sanders said it would amount to the “greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself.”
“The American people have a right to know if this took place,” she said of a congressional inquiry.
Josh Earnest, who was Obama’s press secretary, said presidents do not have authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens, as Trump has alleged was done to him. FBI investigators and Justice Department officials must seek a federal judge’s approval to investigate by demonstrating that probable cause exists.
Earnest accused Trump of levelling the allegations, in a series of tweets Saturday, to distract from the attention being given to campaign-season contacts by his aides with a Russian official, including campaign adviser Jeff Sessions before he resigned from the Senate to become attorney general. The FBI is investigating those contacts, as is Congress.
“There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal,” Earnest said. “And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet.”
Republican members of the House and Senate intelligence committees appeared accepting of the president’s request.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the House committee chairman, said in a statement that a focus of the panel’s investigation is the U.S. government’s response to Russian actions during the election. “As such, the committee will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a member of the Senate panel, said he’d seen no evidence of Trump’s allegations, but was sure the committee would include the matter in its ongoing investigation.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said Trump’s allegations “follow a deeply disturbing pattern of distraction, distortion and downright fabrication.”
“Sean Spicer today tweeted that the administration would have no further comment until this matter was investigated and who can blame him: not even Spicer wishes to have to speak to such a unsubstantiated charge,” said Schiff, who has complained publicly amount the information committee members have been receiving from FBI Director James Comey.
Trump’s call for Congress to investigate Obama has risks, though, particularly if damaging information about him or his associates is uncovered. Lawmakers are promising to follow the evidence wherever it takes them.
In his tweets, Trump compared the alleged wiretapping to “Nixon/Watergate” and “McCarthyism!” And he called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy.”
Trump said in the tweets that he had “just found out” the information, though it was unclear whether he was referring to a briefing, a conversation or a media report. The president in the past has tweeted about unsubstantiated and provocative reports he reads on blogs or conservative websites.
The tweets stand out, given the gravity of the charge and the strikingly personal attack on the former president. Trump spoke as recently as last month about how much he likes Obama and how much they get along, despite their differences.
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” he tweeted, misspelling ‘tap.’
Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said Saturday that a “cardinal rule” of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered in Justice Department investigations, which are supposed to be conducted free of political influence.
“Any suggestion otherwise is simply false,” Lewis said.
Trump has been trailed for months by questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia. Compounding the situation is the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia interfered with the election to help Trump triumph over Hillary Clinton, along with disclosures about his aides’ contacts with a Russian official.
Those disclosures cost retired Gen. Michael Flynn his job as national security adviser.
Democrats had called for Sessions to resign but last week he withdrew from overseeing the FBI probe after acknowledging failure to disclose his campaign-season contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States when asked during his confirmation proceedings. Sessions was a U.S. senator at the time, and Trump’s earliest Senate supporter.
Trump’s allegations may be related to anonymously sourced reports in British media and blogs, and on conservative-leaning U.S. websites, including Breitbart News. Those reports claimed that U.S. officials had obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to review contacts between computers at a Russian bank and Trump’s New York headquarters.
The Associated Press has not confirmed these contacts or an investigation into them. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is a former executive chairman of Breitbart News.
Clapper appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders and Earnest were on ABC’s “This Week” and Cotton commented on “Fox News Sunday.”