FBI director James Comey asked the US Justice Department this weekend to issue a statement refuting US President Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump’s phones before the election, but the department has not done so, according a US official.
Comey made the highly unusual request on Saturday after Trump accused Obama on Twitter of having his “‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower”.
The revelation, first reported by The New York Times, underscores the fraught nature of the FBI’s high-profile investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A key question fueling the probe is whether Trump associates colluded with Russian officials to help Trump win.
The department declined to comment late Sunday afternoon, as did the FBI.
The development came as Trump’s charge against Obama – levelled without any evidence or substantiation – was being rebuffed both inside and outside of the executive branch. And it drew a blunt, on-the-record denial by a top intelligence official who served in the Obama administration.
Speaking on NBC News on Sunday morning, former director of national intelligence James Clapper denied that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) wiretap was authorised against Trump or the campaign during his tenure.
“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time as a candidate or against his campaign,” Clapper said on Meet the Press, adding that he would “absolutely” have been informed if the FBI had received a FISA warrant against either.
“I can deny it,” Clapper said emphatically.
The comments followed a White House statement doubling down on Trump’s explosive series of tweets and calling for a congressional probe into “politically motivated investigations”.
In his claims early Saturday morning, the president tweeted that he “just found out” that Obama had “wires tapped” in Trump Tower before the election, comparing it to “McCarthyism”.
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election?” Trump asked in another tweet. “Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday cited “reports” of “potentially politically motivated investigations” during the 2016 campaign, calling them “troubling.” He did not disclose any of the reports on which the White House was basing its claim.
His statement continued: “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.”
“Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted,” the statement added.
Congressional committees in the House and the Senate are probing suspected Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 election as well as any contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Trump’s Saturday morning tweetstorm may have been prompted by the comments of a conservative radio host, which were summarised in an article on the conservative website Breitbart. The Breitbart story was circulating among Trump’s senior aides on Friday and Saturday.
A spokesman for Obama on Saturday said the former president never authorised a wiretap of Trump or any other American citizen.
The president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens
Josh Earnest, former Obama press secretary
The White House’s escalation of Trump’s claims were kept at arm’s length by congressional Republicans appearing on Sunday morning news broadcasts.
When asked about Trump’s allegations, Senate Intelligence Committee member Tom Cotton, a Republican, declined to comment on the president’s tweets but said he has “seen no evidence of the allegations.”
“Whether that’s a Fisa court application or denial of that application or a re-submission of that application, that doesn’t mean that none of these things happened. It just means we haven’t seen that yet,” Cotton added, speaking on Fox News Sunday.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he is not aware of evidence to back up the president’s claim.
“I have no insight into exactly what he’s referring to,” Rubio said on Meet the Press. “The president put that out there, and now the White House will have to answer for exactly what he was referring to.”
Obama’s allies were more blunt, denying flatly that the former president had ordered a wiretap of Trump’s campaign.
“This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens,” said former Obama White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Meet the Press that Trump is “in trouble” and acting “beneath the dignity of the presidency”.
“The president’s in trouble if he falsely spread this kind of information,” Schumer said. “It shows this president doesn’t know how to conduct himself.”
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