Key members of Congress say they will honor President Donald Trump’s request to investigate his unsubstantiated claim that Barack Obama overstepped his authority as president and had President Trump’s telephones tapped during the election campaign. A U.S. official said the FBI has asked the Justice Department to dispute Trump’s allegation, though no such statement has been issued.
Obama’s intelligence director also said no such action was ever carried out.
President Trump’s claim of presidential abuse of power capped a week in which the positive reaction to his address to Congress quickly evaporated amid the swirl of allegations — and revelations — about contacts between President Trump’s aides and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
President Trump is said to be frustrated by his senior advisers’ inability to tamp down the Russia issue. Compounding the situation was the revelation last week that former senator and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early Trump campaign supporter, had met twice with the Russian official but didn’t disclose that to lawmakers when he was asked about it during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Separately, an Indiana newspaper reported that Vice President Mike Pence used personal email to conduct state business when he was governor of Indiana. The revelation recalled the use of personal e-mail by President Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state. The issue dogged Clinton for most of the presidential campaign.
“It’s sort of like getting nibbled to death by ducks,” said Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker.
The House and Senate intelligence committees, and the FBI, are investigating the contacts, and President Trump demanded Sunday that they broaden the scope of their inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 election to include Obama’s potential abuse of his executive powers.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement that the panel “will follow the evidence where it leads, and we will continue to be guided by the intelligence and facts as we compile our findings.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the committee “will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates.”
President Trump’s request carries some risk, particularly if the committees unearth damaging information about him or his associates. Committee Democrats will have access to the information and could wield anything negative against the president. Asking Congress to conduct a much broader investigation than originally envisioned also ensures the Russia issue will hang over the White House for months.
Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said nothing matching President Trump’s claims had taken place.
“Absolutely, I can deny it,” said Clapper. Other Obama representatives also denied President Trump’s allegation, which the FBI has asked the Justice Department to dispute, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Sunday. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the request by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The department, however, has issued no such statement. DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment Sunday, and an FBI spokesman also did not comment.
The New York Times reported that senior American officials say FBI Director James Comey has argued that the Justice Department must correct the claim because it falsely insinuates that the FBI broke the law.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s instruction to Congress was based on “very troubling” reports “concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election.” He did not elaborate.
Spicer said the White House wants the congressional committees to “exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.” He said there would be no further comment until the investigations are completed.
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.”
Josh Earnest, who was Obama’s White House press secretary, said presidents do not have authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens, as President Trump has alleged was done to him. FBI investigators and Justice Department officials must seek approval from a federal judge for such a step. Earnest accused President Trump of leveling the allegation to distract from the attention being given to the Russia issue.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said they will ask the White House for details about reports of contacts between the White House and the Justice Department concerning the FBI’s review of whether the Russian government unlawfully influenced the U.S. presidential election.
Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said a “cardinal rule” of the Obama administration was not to interfere in Justice Department investigations. Lewis said neither Obama nor any White House official had ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. “Any suggestion otherwise is simply false,” Lewis said.