Former Intelligence Chiefs Dispute Trump Wiretap Allegations
Former U.S. intelligence officials continued to dispute President Donald Trump’s explosive allegations that he was subject to wiretapping ordered by his predecessor, saying it never happened, as the controversy continued into a third day.
“I can deny it,” James Clapper, the Obama administration’s Director of National Intelligence, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked whether he could confirm or deny that a court order allowing for eavesdropping at Trump Tower in New York existed.
Joining Clapper in knocking down Trump’s assertions was FBI Director James Comey, according to the New York Times. Comey asked Department of Justice officials on Saturday to issue a statement rejecting Trump’s claims that Obama had tapped his phones, arguing that the assertion is false, but the agency has not, the newspaper reported.
A former director of the CIA and NSA during the George W. Bush administration, General Michael Hayden, said Monday that a president can’t order such wiretapping and that “to set the record straight” the secret court records may need to be provided to Trump in an “unprecedented” move.
There are other ways for Trump to determine the truth, he said. "It looks as if the president just for a moment forgot that he was president,” Hayden told Fox News. “Why didn’t he simply use the powers of the presidency to ask the acting director of national intelligence, the head of the FBI to confirm or deny the story he apparently read from Breitbart, the evening before?"
Trump’s claim in a series of Twitter posts Saturday that President Barack Obama had the Republican’s “wires tapped in Trump Tower just before” the 2016 election relied on reports in conservative media, including Breitbart News, for his conclusion, a person familiar with the situation told Bloomberg.
"Let’s get to the bottom of it. That is the president’s entire point," Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Monday without providing evidence of the wiretapping claims. "He has intelligence and information that the rest of us do not."
On Sunday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer called on Congress to investigate the reports. Democrats said the White House was trying to shift focus away from ongoing investigations into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump’s allegations came two days after the top U.S. law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, removed himself from investigations of Russian interference with the election, including Russian contacts with associates of Trump related to the campaign.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a statement that the panel "will follow the evidence where it leads, and we will continue to be guided by the intelligence and facts as we compile our findings."
“There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook,” former Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal.”
Trump was furious about Sessions’ recusal — a decision the attorney-general came to on his own — because it made the administration look weak, said a person familiar with the situation. The president on Friday yelled at senior staff in the Oval Office, an incident witnessed remotely by reporters with zoom-lens cameras waiting outside the building for Trump to board his Marine One helicopter for Joint Base Andrews and a weekend in Florida.
Early Saturday, the president kicked off the furor about alleged wiretapping with a series of tweets to his 26 million followers. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,’’ Trump wrote on his personal Twitter account. “Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!’’ The president said a “Nixon/Watergate” process was under way, and called Obama a “bad (or sick) guy.”
In a statement, Spicer said 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.”
Neither the White House nor the president will comment further “until such oversight is conducted,” Spicer said.
Clapper said if a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order had been approved to spy on Trump’s home and office complex, he would “absolutely” have known it. “To my knowledge” there was no such order of anything at Trump Tower, he said.
‘No Such Wiretap Activity’
“For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time or as a candidate or against his campaign,” Clapper said.
The DNI, the top intelligence official in the U.S. government, oversees the intelligence efforts of more than a dozen civilian and military agencies. “I can’t speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity,” Clapper said.
Hayden said "it would be really unprecedented” to provide classified records from the FISA court to a sitting president, but “we’re off the map here. We are in unprecedented territory, as well, so perhaps at some point in order to set the record straight we may do something unusual."
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the matter will be part of the ongoing inquiry. Asked whether he’s seen any evidence that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, Cotton said, “I’ve seen no evidence of the allegations we’ve seen in the media.”
Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also said in a statement on Sunday that his panel “will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates, and we will continue to investigate this issue if the evidence warrants it.”
Another White House aide, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy press secretary said in an ABC interview Monday when asked whether Trump accepts FBI Director Comey’s denial, "You know, I don’t think he does.”
"I think he firmly believes this is a story line that has been reported pretty widely by quite a few outlets,” she said.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that if the Trump’s allegations aren’t true, “then, obviously, he’ll have to explain what he meant.’’
Senate Democrats phrased their comments with care. “I am not aware of any FISA court order regarding Trump Tower,” Mark Warner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” a reference to the the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows warrants for eavesdropping.
Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the intelligence panel, referred back to the precise wording of Clapper’s comment. “I am not aware, as General Clapper has said, of any kind of FISA order that was somehow, you know, in effect bugging Trump Tower.” The Virginia lawmaker left open the possibility of a FISA order or other surveillance directed outside of Trump Tower or the Trump campaign.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, speaking on CNN, said Trump’s contentions about Obama, and the call for a Congressional inquiry, were an attempt at deflection. “Rather than Russia, we’re talking about, did President Obama do thus and so,” she said.
“It’s called a wrap-up smear,” Pelosi said of the wiretapping claims. “You make up something. Then you have the press write about it. And then you say, everybody is writing about this charge. It’s a tool of an authoritarian.”
Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, continued to demand that a special prosecutor be named to look into the Trump campaign’s Russian activity.
Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, said Trump’s unproven accusations send “a terrible message’’ to other countries. “It makes us vulnerable to our enemies,’’ Panetta said on CBS.
That sentiment was echoed by Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “For a president of the United States to make such an incendiary charge — and one that discredits our democracy in the eyes of the world — is as destructive as it was baseless,” he said in a statement.
Noted Clapper: “Certainly the Russians have to be chortling about the success of their efforts to sow dissension in this country.”