PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBSNewYork/AP) — 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.
President Donald Trump leveled that claim on Saturday when he accused his predecessor of tapping telephones at Trump Tower. But Trump offered no supporting evidence, a spokesman for Obama denied the claim as “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 said in a statement Sunday that reports “concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling.”
“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.
It was unclear what reports Spicer was referring to, and what prompted Trump to make the allegation.
Spicer ended the statement by saying that neither the White House nor Trump will comment further “until such oversight is conducted.”
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said there are two possibilities. If Trump was wiretapped, that means that a federal judge found probable cause of wrongdoing in order to issue a warrant, or the president was never wiretapped and made the charges without evidence, 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern reported.
“That’s not presidential, that’s beneath the dignity of the office,” Schumer said.
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 leveling the allegations in an attempt 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.”
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.
In a series of morning tweets Saturday, Trump suggested Obama was behind a politically motivated plot to upend his campaign. He compared the alleged events to “Nixon/Watergate” and “McCarthyism!” And he called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy.”
The Watergate break-in during the Nixon administration led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the conviction of several aides. Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reckless and unsupported charges of communist infiltration in federal government during the 1950s gave rise to the term “McCarthyism.”
After Trump’s well-received speech to Congress on Tuesday, the tweets reflected the president’s growing frustration with the swirling allegations about his advisers’ ties to Russia, which are under FBI investigation, and his team’s inability to overcome them. Trump lashed out at his senior team during an Oval Office meeting Friday, according to one White House official.
The White House did not respond to questions about what prompted the president’s accusations that Obama had tapped his phones.
Trump contended that the wiretapping occurred in October at Trump Tower, the New York skyscraper where he ran his campaign and transition. He also maintains a residence there.
Trump has been trailed for months by questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia. The questions have been compounded by 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 have already cost retired Gen. Michael Flynn his job as national security adviser and prompted calls from Democrats for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
On Thursday, Sessions withdrew from overseeing the FBI probe after acknowledging he did not disclose his campaign-season contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States when asked during his confirmation proceedings. Sessions, a U.S. senator at the time, was Trump’s earliest Senate supporter.
The Sessions revelations deepened the president’s anger over what he sees as his team’s inability to get ahead of the Russia allegations.
In the Oval Office meeting Friday shortly before departing for Florida, he angrily told senior advisers that what had the potential to be a good week following his address to Congress had been overtaken by the Russia controversy, according to a White House official who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting.
The president’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.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)