The White House on Sunday refused to walk back President Trump’s startling claim that former President Barack Obama orchestrated a wire tap of Trump Tower late in the 2016 campaign despite a glaring lack of evidence.
In an apparent effort to distract attention from his administration’s mounting woes over a Justice Department and a congressional investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives, the hyperbolic Trump on Saturday dispatched early morning Twitter blasts from his West Palm Beach resort declaring that Obama “had my wires tapped.”
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Trump described the former president as a “bad (or sick) guy” and likened his behavior to “Nixon/Watergate.” Trump’s top advisers reportedly were startled by the president’s actions and scrambled to contain the damage, just days after Trump received glowing reviews of his address to a joint session of Congress.
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC News today that there have been “quite a few” reports from both main stream and far-right news organizations suggesting that the FBI may have wire tapped Trump’s organization as part of an investigation into links between Trump associates and the Russian government.
Trump’s angry tweets Saturday may have been in response to a report Friday by the alt-right website Breitbart and commentary from conservative talk radio host Mark Levin alleging that Obama used “police state” tactics to monitor Trump’s organization, according to The Washington Post.
“All we’re saying is, let’s take a closer look,” Sanders told ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “If this happened, if this is accurate, this is . . . the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that we have ever seen. It is an attack on democracy itself and the American people have a right to know if this took place.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer earlier issued a statement defending his boss but saying that Trump and the White House would have no further comments until the House and Senate intelligence committees had completed their probes of Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election.
But Obama surrogates lashed back, suggesting that that Trump had gone off the reservation with his unfounded attacks on the former president whom Trump once praised for reaching out to him. Even Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska voiced alarm about Trump’s “very serious allegations” and fretted that “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public confidence.”
Administration critics insisted that the president’s tweets won’t detract from mounting evidence that Trump campaign supporters, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to cover up their contacts with Russian at the same time Russian hackers were trying to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Sessions last Thursday was forced to recuse himself from the Justice Department investigation of Russian efforts to meddle in the presidential campaigns following the disclosure that he had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. Sessions withheld that information from the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings in January, which has prompted some Democratic leaders to call for his resignation.
Trump reportedly was furious that Sessions recused himself from the investigation, and berated White House chief of staff Reince Priebus senior adviser Steven Bannon and other top aides for allowing the scandal to overshadow his accomplishments and step on his political message.
“There is one page in the Trump crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from the scandal, Josh Earnest, Obama’s White House press secretary, said today on the ABC “This Week” program. “And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet.”
Earnest couldn’t totally rule out the possibility that Trump’s organization had been wiretapped by the FBI, but denied that Obama attempted to intervene in the investigation. “This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the White House, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wire tapping of an American citizen.”
However, James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence under Obama, denied today that the FBI or Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower before the new president’s inauguration in late January.
“I can deny it,” Clapper told Chuck Todd during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. Clapper, who stepped down as intelligence chief in January, said that “I would know that” if the Justice Department and FBI had obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that would have been needed to tap the Trump organization phones.
He added, however, that his remarks would not apply to potential state or local operations or “other authorized entities in the government.”
The New York Times reported there is no confirmed evidence that the FBI obtained a court warrant to wire the Trump Organization or was capturing communications directly from the Trump Organization before the election.
However, the newspaper previously reported that last fall, the FBI “examined computer data showing an odd stream of activity” between a Trump Organization server and Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s biggest banks, whose owners have strong ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.