White House on the defensive over wiretapping allegation

The White House struggled to answer questions Monday about President Trump’s unsubstantiated assertion that President Obama illegally wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign. 

Officials stood by Trump’s claim, but said the onus is on Congress to find proof.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly said he would let “the tweets speak for themselves,” prompting chuckles from reporters during his daily media briefing, which was conducted off-camera.  

Trump stayed out of sight, even as he signed a new executive order on travel and met with Cabinet members, leaving his aides to defend his extraordinary accusation.

Spicer provided no new evidence to back up the president’s wiretapping claim during the 63-minute briefing, which was dominated by Trump’s weekend tweets. 

The only comments Spicer cited were made by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who on Sunday said Trump was likely right that there was some surveillance on Trump Tower, but wrong that Obama ordered it. 

Mukasey cautioned that his comments were based on news reports, not firsthand information. 

“If we start down the rabbit hole of discussing some of this stuff, I think that we end up in a very difficult place,” Spicer said. 

Senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway implied on Fox News that Trump’s claim may have been sparked by “information and intelligence that the rest of us do not” have.

But that appeared to be at odds with multiple reports over the weekend, which indicated that Trump’s suspicions were based on reports from Breitbart News and talk radio host Mark Levin.

Spicer said there is “no question something happened,” even as he refused to corroborate Trump’s specific claim that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped.’ ”

“The question is: Is it surveillance? Is it a wiretap or whatever?” Spicer asked. “But there’s been enough reporting that strongly suggests that something occurred.” 

The White House’s response stirred even more confusion regarding the source of Trump’s allegation, which has come under intense scrutiny from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.

It has also raised the stakes for an ongoing probe into ties between Russia and top Trump associates during the 2016 presidential race, when U.S. intelligence agencies say Moscow carried out a sweeping effort to undermine the election and boost Trump. 

White House officials have called on the House and Senate Intelligence committees to investigate Trump’s allegations as part of the inquiry, and on Monday expanded the request to include leaks of classified material. 

But those calls may have the opposite of their intended effect, emboldening Republicans to accelerate the pace and scope of the investigation. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who was also a Trump transition official, said his panel would look into whether the federal government authorized wiretaps. 

But other Republicans appeared less inclined to go down that path. 

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdySunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for another week fighting the coronavirus, seek to curb fallout GOP lawmaker shows off AR-15 in office, challenges Biden to 'come and take it' Sunday shows preview: 2020 Democrats jockey for top spot ahead of Nevada caucuses MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said there’s no evidence to support Trump’s claim. 

“I don’t think the FBI is the Obama team, and I don’t think the men and women who are career prosecutors at [the Department of Justice] belong to any team other than a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales,” he said on Fox News. 

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah) said he hasn’t seen such evidence but didn’t completely rule out the possibility that it exists. 

“I got to believe, I think, he might have something there, but if not, we’re going to find out,” he said on “CBS This Morning.”

Even as the White House asked lawmakers to examine Trump’s charge, Spicer said the president feels no obligation to accept the results of an investigation from Congress.

“I don’t think you would ever just blanketly say, ‘I’m ready to accept these outcomes,’ ” Spicer said.

The day’s developments highlighted the degree to which the White House has been left to defend Trump’s accusation alone.

The controversy has reportedly put Trump at odds with FBI Director James Comey, who is said to be overseeing investigations into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But Trump’s allegation has complicated the situation; if Obama had personally ordered the wiretap, as Trump claimed, it raises the potential that the FBI may have broken the law by agreeing to it. 

Comey reportedly asked the Justice Department to knock down Trump’s claim as untrue, according to The New York Times. CNN reported Monday that Comey was “incredulous” after the president made his allegation. 

Spicer cast doubt on the reports by noting they came from anonymous sources. But when asked whether Trump spoke with Comey about the possibility of a wiretap, the spokesman said, “To the best of my knowledge, I’m almost 100 percent certain that he has not.” 

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC News earlier Monday that she does not think Trump accepts Comey’s denials. 

The comment about wiretapping was the latest example of Trump making a serious, yet unsubstantiated, allegation. He spent the first week of his administration blaming his popular vote loss on as many as 5 million people voting illegally. 

The president’s critics say the allegations come at a real cost.

“You lose credibility with your allies and you lose credibility with the American people,” Michael McFaul, Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, said on MSNBC. “It’s going to be hard for some of us to believe him because he puts out these kinds of tweets. It’s really damaging to our national security.”