Washington: Donald Trump relied on conservative media sources to make his explosive claim that former President Barack Obama had the then-candidate’s phones tapped during the 2016 election campaign, according to a person familiar with the situation.
A spokesman for Obama said Trump’s claims were “simply false”, and lawmakers urged Trump, if he had evidence of a wiretap, to make it public or at least disclose it to Congress.
“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” Trump wrote on Saturday on his personal Twitter account. “Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!’’
The president, who regularly has access to classified information and intelligence briefings, relied on Breitbart News for his information about the alleged wiretap, according to the person.
Breitbart, the media outlet previously run by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, published a story on Friday outlining actions supposedly taken by the Obama administration to monitor Trump Tower in New York during the campaign. The story, which claimed the moves were aimed at undermining Trump’s candidacy, referenced commentary on Thursday by radio host Mark Levin that made similar claims.
Neither Breitbart News nor Levin cited independent reporting to back up the assertions. Trump’s White House didn’t respond to requests for an on-the-record account of Trump’s allegations.
“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, a spokesman for Obama, said in an emailed statement on Saturday. “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, also denied Trump’s claims on Saturday. “No President can order a wiretap,” Rhodes wrote on Twitter in a response back to Trump. “Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
Trump is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. He was scheduled to attend a National Security Council briefing on Saturday afternoon after golfing, and later to meet with Sessions and Homeland Security secretary John Kelly.
After recent news stories highlighted a number of meetings between Trump associates and Russian government officials during the 2016 election, Trump has trained his Twitter account on top Democrats, seeking to highlight their actions instead.
For a QuickTake on the Trump-Russia saga, click here.
Comparing Obama to former President Richard Nixon during the 1970s Watergate scandal, Trump took his on-and-off feud with his predecessor to a new level in four separate early-morning tweets to his almost 26 million followers.
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!,” one tweet said. “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad [or sick] guy!”
The tweets were issued two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he’d recuse himself from any investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Trump’s flurry of tweets sparked further concern by some in Congress, who called on the president to be more forthcoming about his wiretapping accusations.
‘Crisis of public trust’
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who has been a Trump critic, said on Saturday that Trump’s allegations suggest that even if Obama wasn’t involved, a court may have seen sufficient evidence to authorise a wiretap — a potentially groundbreaking development.
Any legal wiretapping would have been initiated by intelligence agencies, with court approval required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). According to federal law, a Fisa court approving a wiretap of Trump’s home or offices would have had to find probable cause that the facility was being used on behalf of a foreign power, or that Trump’s associates were involved in espionage.
Such a wiretap could have been obtained without Obama’s involvement, if intelligence agencies determined — and got a court to agree — that Trump or his associates were acting on behalf of a foreign government. Trump has denied colluding with Russia, saying he has no links to the country.
Fisa court order
“If it was with a legal Fisa court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the court found credible,” Sasse said in a statement. “The president should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives be made available.”
The US is “in the midst of a civilisation-warping crisis of public trust, and the president’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots,” Sasse said.
Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said Trump had “no evidence” to support his “spectacularly reckless” claims.
“No matter how much we hope and pray that this President will grow into one who respects and understands the Constitution, separation of powers, role of a free press, responsibilities as the leader of the free world, or demonstrates even the most basic regard for the truth, we must now accept that President Trump will never become that man,” Schiff said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated her calls for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. “The Deflector-in-Chief is at it again,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter. “An investigation by an independent commission is the only answer.”
The New York Times in October said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was investigating Russia’s possible role in the US campaign, and said agents had scrutinised advisers close to Trump for any connections to Russian financial figures. The newspaper, in an October 31 story, said the FBI pursued the possibility of a secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organisation to a Russian bank. The New York Times said the FBI “came to doubt” such a channel existed.
Levin, a former Reagan administration aide, highlighted news stories by the Times and other media outlets in asserting on Thursday that the Obama administration put the Trump campaign under surveillance. “The question is: Was Obama surveilling top Trump campaign officials during the election?” Levin asked. “We absolutely know this is true.”
Breitbart’s follow-up referenced Levin’s claims and outlined a number of published news accounts, dating back to June 2016, about alleged actions taken against Trump by intelligence agencies under Obama.
Democrats and some Republicans have called for further scrutiny into links between the Trump team and the Russian government during the 2016 election. Lawmakers from both parties called for Sessions to recuse himself after news reports showed that he met with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, twice last year, after denying meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing. Top Democrats called for Sessions — who said the meetings were not campaign-related — to resign.
News reports found that other Trump associates, including Carter Page, an energy consultant and foreign policy adviser, had met with Kislyak during the 2016 campaign, contradicting previous statements by the campaign. US intelligence agencies previously determined that Russia directed cyber attacks to meddle in the US election, benefiting Trump.
During a Saturday town hall meeting in Clemson, South Carolina, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said an independent commission may be needed to fully uncover Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible ties to Trump.