House intelligence chair rejects Trump’s claim
In a striking repudiation of President Donald Trump, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said on Wednesday that he had seen no indication of Trump’s claim on Twitter that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“We don’t have any evidence that that took place,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “In fact, I don’t believe — in the last week of time, people we’ve talked to, I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
If Trump’s Twitter claim is to be taken literally, Nunes said, “then clearly the president is wrong.”
Even a member of Trump’s Cabinet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, raised questions about the claim. In Richmond, Va., he told reporters that he had never given Trump any reason to believe he had been wiretapped.
Other top Republicans were threatening to block Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general if the FBI did not provide evidence related to the possible wiretapping.
Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, said FBI Director James Comey will testify Monday at the committee’s first public hearing on its Russian interference investigation. Comey could presumably resolve the question about the wiretap.
Schiff also challenged the statements of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who had said that while he was not aware of any investigation targeting Trump, the president spoke accurately when he said he had been wiretapped by Obama.
“Those two things cannot both be true unless he is suggesting that the FBI was engaged in a rogue operation unsupervised by a court to wiretap Trump Tower,” Schiff said. “There is absolutely no evidence of that and no suggestion of any evidence of that.”
In another sign of pressure, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would block the nomination of Rod Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general unless the FBI answered his questions. Rosenstein has been expected to easily win Senate confirmation. The Judiciary Committee has primary oversight of the FBI.
The FBI is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. As part of that case, agents are looking at whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government.
After Trump made the claim on March 4 in a Twitter message that Obama had tapped his telephone, Comey asked the Justice Department to make a statement disputing Trump’s assertion.
So far, the Justice Department has refused to say publicly whether it went to a judge to get a secret warrant to eavesdrop on Trump, putting the department in a difficult position. Silence from the Justice Department has frustrated Comey.
If the Justice Department says there was no wiretap, it will undercut the president’s accusation. If there was a wiretap, it suggests that FBI agents and federal prosecutors had probable cause to believe that Trump the candidate was operating as an agent of a foreign power.
It is not clear why Trump thought he was wiretapped or what led him to make the claim, which was flatly rejected by James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, and by a spokesman for Obama.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked the FBI last week for copies of any warrant applications and court orders “related to wiretaps of President Trump, the Trump Campaign, or Trump Tower.”
On Wednesday, Graham said during an appearance on CNN that he would also subpoena the FBI to get the information if necessary.
“I want to get to the bottom of it,” Graham said. “The FBI would know if a warrant was issued. They would know if a warrant was applied for. I want to answer that question.”
A delay on Rosenstein’s appointment would create a number of problems for the Justice Department. In particular, he was expected to oversee any department investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election after Sessions, who was an adviser to the Trump presidential campaign, recused himself following questions about why he did not disclose during his confirmation hearing that he’d had contact with the Russian ambassador.