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THE MEMO: GOP breaks from Trump in 'wiretap' furor

The “wiretapping” controversy is driving a wedge between President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE 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 Antonio RubioThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia On The Money: Treasury official charged with leaking info on ex-Trump advisers | Trump to seek 5 percent budget cut from Cabinet members | Mnuchin to decide by Thursday on attending Saudi conference 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 Mauze BurrDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years? MORE (R-N.C.) delivered a blow to the administration in a joint statement with the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Is there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel 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 Davis RyanThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns 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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure McGahn departs as White House counsel 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 Trump’s presidency.