Donald Trump’s officials have begun the awkward business of walking back one of his most incendiary tweets, by arguing that the president did not literally believe Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
Sean Spicer, his spokesman, said Mr Trump used the phrase “wiretap” to indicate a range of possible surveillance measures, echoing his colleague Kellyanne Conway’s bold assertion a day earlier that intelligence agencies may have used a microwave oven to do their spying.
Their intervention only adds to the bizarre saga of Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that his phones were tapped by the Obama administration during the election and the growing impression of a White House paranoid about enemies among its own spies.
On Monday a deadline for government lawyers to provide proof of Mr Trump’s extraordinary allegation came and went without any evidence being brought to light.
Instead Mr Spicer insisted his boss had not been speaking literally.
“He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally but I think there’s no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election,” he said during his daily briefing.
The tapping allegation has had intelligence experts scratching their heads ever since Mr Trump dropped the bombshell in an early morning tweet.
“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,” he wrote on March 3.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
So far his officials have offered no supporting details. Senior Obama-era intelligence officers have denied any such surveillance was conducted.
The House Intelligence Committee asked the Department of Justice to provide evidence to support the allegation by today.
With no such evidence forthcoming, Mr Trump’s loyal aides have done their best to fill in the gaps.
When asked about the issue by New Jersey’s Bergen County Record newspaper, Ms Conway said: “What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately.
“There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways, and microwaves that turn into cameras etcetera, so we know that that is just a fact of modern life.”
Wikileaks had revealed CIA documents suggesting it worked on hacking smart television sets to turn them into listening devices.