The “wiretapping” controversy is driving a wedge between President Trump and some of his staunchest allies on Capitol Hill.
Many Republicans are showing a willingness to break with Trump over the issue, with few providing cover to help him defend his accusations.
The controversy has mired Trump and his aides in yet another confrontation with the media, at a time when his legislative agenda is in sore need of attention, from the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act to the push to pass a budget.
Almost two weeks have gone by since the president accused his predecessor, President Obama, of wiretapping the phones in Trump Tower during last year’s election campaign. Trump made the comments in a series of four tweets posted on March 4.
No evidence has been offered to substantiate those allegations. In recent days, Trump aides and the president himself have suggested he may have meant other, more general types of surveillance.
But key GOP figures don’t seem to be buying that explanation.
“The reason I think you are seeing a little more pushback is that he made those [initial] claims, essentially counting on Congress to find the evidence,” said Dan Judy, a GOP strategist who worked with the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE (R-Fla).
“Lawmakers do not like to be hung out to dry on things like that because it causes them problems that are not of their own creation,” Judy added. “When all of a sudden the onus is put on them to prove it, they don’t appreciate that.”
The pushback has come from several different quarters.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard BurrSenate committee to question Kushner over Russian meetings: report Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress Schumer: Trump must apologize for wiretapping claim MORE (R-N.C.) delivered a blow to the administration in a joint statement with the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerTop Senate Intel Dem: Nunes's meeting on WH grounds 'more than suspicious' Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress MORE (Va.), on Thursday.
Their statement said that “based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”
Also on Thursday, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump: Dems ‘will make a deal’ on healthcare Pelosi, more Dems call for Nunes to step aside Nunes will not step down from Russia probe MORE (R-Wis.) stressed his belief that congressional committees had “got to the bottom” of the matter and “with respect to our intelligence community … no such wiretap existed.”
Ryan also alluded to remarks by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) the previous day. Nunes, generally seen as a Trump ally, told reporters, “Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.”
There is no obvious off-ramp for the president from the controversy, especially given his well-established reluctance to apologize.
Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsPerez: Trump ‘trying to bully law enforcement’ over sanctuary cities Sessions says grants to be withheld from sanctuary cities Cheech Marin hopes Trump voters 'starting to realize their mistake' MORE, a stalwart Trump ally, was asked on Wednesday if he had given the president any reason “to believe that he was wiretapped by the previous administration.”
Sessions replied, “Look, the answer is no.”
Even Republicans who do not believe Trump will be hurt among his most hardcore, grassroots supporters evince a clear distaste for the president’s tactics.
Judd Gregg, a former GOP senator from New Hampshire and a columnist for The Hill, said that Trump’s supporters were “very accepting of his tendency to go off-script.”
But, Gregg added, “clearly it was a totally inappropriate and wrong thing to say. You can’t accuse a former president of violating the law without facts. That is not right and not appropriate.”
Trump appears to be betting that he can muddy the waters sufficiently to emerge from the controversy unscathed.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News pressed the president on the unsupported nature of his allegations during an interview that was broadcast Wednesday night. In response, Trump said, “I think we have some very good stuff. And we are in the process of putting it together.”
Trump also highlighted the tweets in which the word “wiretapping” was used in quotes, saying, “That really covers surveillance and many other things.”
The claim that Trump was not to be taken literally about wiretapping appears to have first been publicly made on Monday, nine days after the original tweets, by White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
There were four separate tweets in which Trump made the allegations against Obama. In two of those tweets, quotation marks were used. But two of the four also included apparently unequivocal statements, such as “I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”
Spicer conducted a fractious media briefing on Thursday, which included heated exchanges with Jonathan Karl of ABC News and Jim Acosta of CNN, among others.
Spicer said that Trump “stands by” his original charge. But the press secretary also insisted once again that the president did not mean literal wiretapping but rather that he could have been caught in broader surveillance efforts.
Where does the issue go from here?
Some Republicans, not all of them fervent Trump supporters, think the controversy will ultimately fade.
“I just don’t see what happened in terms of Trump being likely to come out and do a major ‘My bad!’” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “I think he will just ride this horse for as long as he can. And when this horse runs out of steam, he will get off and move on to something else.”
But others are not so sure that the wiretapping furor is a distraction the president can afford.
“The health bill is very controversial. It really needs the time and attention and focus of the president,” Judy said. “This is just a humongous and pointless distraction from the real work that needs to be done.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump to undo Obama's climate change agenda Kushner met Russian bank executives: report Trump tweets: 'Trump Russia story is a hoax' MORE’s presidency.