FBI’s Comey to DOJ: Re­fute Trump claim

But White House stands by Obama wire­tap­ping al­le­ga­tion, seeks probe.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Michael S. Sch­midt and Michael D. Shear ©2017 The New York Times

FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey asked the Jus­tice Depart­ment over the week­end to pub­licly re­ject Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s as­ser­tion that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama or­dered the tap­ping of Trump’s phones, se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials said Sun­day. Comey has ar­gued that the highly charged claim is false and must be cor­rected, they said, but the depart­ment has not re­leased any such state­ment.

Comey, who made the re­quest Satur­day af­ter Trump lev­eled his al­le­ga­tion on Twit­ter, has been work­ing to get the Jus­tice Depart­ment to knock down the claim be­cause it falsely in­sin­u­ates that the FBI broke the law, the of­fi­cials said.

A spokesman for the FBI de­clined to com­ment. Sarah Is­gur Flores, spokes­woman for the Jus­tice Depart­ment, also de­clined to com­ment.

Comey’s re­quest is a re­mark­able re­buke of a sit­ting pres­i­dent, putting the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial in the po­si­tion of ques­tion­ing Trump’s truth­ful­ness. The con­fronta­tion be­tween the two is the most se­ri­ous con­se­quence of Trump’s week­end Twit­ter out­burst, and it un­der­scores the dan­gers of what the pres­i­dent and his aides

have un­leashed by ac­cus­ing the for­mer pres­i­dent of a con­spir­acy to un­der­mine Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The White House showed no in­di­ca­tion that it would back down from Trump’s claims. On Sun­day, the pres­i­dent de­manded a con­gres­sional in­quiry into whether Obama had abused the power of fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies be­fore the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In a state­ment from his spokesman, Trump called “re­ports” about the wire­tap­ping “very trou­bling” and said that Congress should ex­am­ine them as part of its in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Rus­sia’s med­dling in the elec­tion.

Along with con­cerns about the po­ten­tial at­tacks on the bureau’s cred­i­bil­ity, se­nior FBI of­fi­cials are said to be wor­ried that the no­tion of a court-ap­proved wire­tap will raise the pub­lic’s ex­pec­ta­tions that fed­eral au­thor­i­ties have sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence im­pli­cat­ing the Trump cam­paign in col­lud­ing with Rus­sia’s ef­forts to dis­rupt the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

One prob­lem Comey has faced is that there are few se­nior po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed of­fi­cials at the Jus­tice Depart­ment who can make the de­ci­sion to re­lease a state­ment, the of­fi­cials said. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions re­cused him­self Thurs­day from all mat­ters re­lated to the fed­eral investigation into con­nec­tions be­tween Trump, his as­so­ciates and Rus­sia.

Comey’s be­hind-thescenes ma­neu­ver­ing is cer­tain to in­vite con­trasts to his ac­tions last year, when he spoke pub­licly about the Hil­lary Clin­ton email case and dis­re­garded Jus­tice Depart­ment en­treaties not to.

It is not clear why Comey did not is­sue the state­ment him­self. He is the most se­nior law en­force­ment of­fi­cial who was kept on the job as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion gave way to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. And while the Jus­tice Depart­ment ap­plies for in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing war­rants, the FBI keeps its own set of records and is in po­si­tion to know whether Trump’s claims are true. While in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials do not nor­mally dis­cuss the ex­is­tence or nonex­is­tence of sur­veil­lance war­rants, no law pre­vents Comey from is­su­ing the state­ment.

In his de­mand for a con­gres­sional in­quiry, the pres­i­dent, through his press sec­re­tary, Sean Spicer, is­sued a state­ment Sun­day that said, “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, who re­peated the en­tire state­ment in a se­ries of Twit­ter mes­sages, added that “nei­ther the White House nor the pres­i­dent will com­ment fur­ther un­til such over­sight is con­ducted.”

A spokesman for Obama and his for­mer aides have called the ac­cu­sa­tion by Trump com­pletely false, say­ing that Obama never or­dered any wire­tap­ping of a U.S. cit­i­zen.

“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, Obama’s spokesman, said in a state­ment Satur­day.

Trump’s de­mand for a con­gres­sional investigation ap­pears to be based, at least in part, on un­proven claims by Bre­it­bart News and con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio hosts that se­cret war­rants were is­sued au­tho­riz­ing the tap­ping of the phones of Trump and his aides at Trump Tower in New York.

In a se­ries of Twit­ter mes­sages Satur­day, the pres­i­dent seemed to be con­vinced that those claims were true. In one post, Trump said, “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that Pres­i­dent Obama was tap­ping my phones in Oc­to­ber, just prior to Elec­tion!”

On Sun­day, Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, deputy White House press sec­re­tary, said the pres­i­dent was de­ter­mined to find out what had re­ally hap­pened, call­ing it po­ten­tially the “great­est abuse of power” that the coun­try has ever seen.

“Look, I think he’s go­ing off of in­for­ma­tion that he’s seen that has led him to be­lieve that this is a very real po­ten­tial,” San­ders said on ABC’s “This Week” pro­gram. “And if it is, this is the great­est over­reach and the great­est abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge at­tack on democ­racy it­self. And the Amer­i­can peo­ple have a right to know if this took place.”

The claims about wire­tap­ping ap­pear sim­i­lar in some ways to the un­founded voter fraud charges that Trump made dur­ing his first days in the Oval Of­fice. Just af­ter In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, he re­it­er­ated in a se­ries of Twit­ter posts his be­lief that mil­lions of vot­ers had cast bal­lots il­le­gally — claims that also ap­peared to be based on con­spir­acy the­o­ries from right-wing web­sites.

As with his de­mand for a wire­tap­ping in­quiry, Trump also called for a “ma­jor investigation” into voter fraud, say­ing on Twit­ter that “de­pend­ing on re­sults, we will strengthen up vot­ing pro­ce­dures!” No investigation has been started.

Se­nior law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who worked in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have said there were no se­cret in­tel­li­gence war­rants re­gard­ing Trump. Asked whether such a war­rant ex­isted, James R. Clap­per Jr., a for­mer di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Not to my knowl­edge, no.”

“There was no such wire­tap ac­tiv­ity mounted against the pres­i­dent-elect at the time as a can­di­date or against his cam­paign,” Clap­per added.

Trump’s de­mands for a con­gres­sional investigation were ini­tially met with skep­ti­cism by law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Repub­li­cans. Ap­pear­ing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sun­day, Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., said he was “not sure what it is that he is talk­ing about.”

“I’m not sure what the ge­n­e­sis of that state­ment was,” Ru­bio said.

ERIK S. LESSER / GETTY IMAGES

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump waves as he walks across the South Lawn to­ward the White House in Wash­ing­ton on Sun­day, af­ter re­turn­ing from a week­end at his estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

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