The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate intelligence committee have rubbished Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that Barack Obama placed Trump Tower under surveillance.
“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,” the Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and the Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia said in a joint statement on Thursday.
Burr and Warner helm one of the congressional committees investigating ties to Russia by Trump’s associates. Those unfolding inquiries have expanded their focus to include Trump’s evidence-free accusation, made on Twitter on 4 March, that Obama ordered surveillance of his eventual successor.
Their counterparts on the House intelligence committee, the Republican Devin Nunes and the Democrat Adam Schiff, both of California, announced the same conclusion on Wednesday.
“We don’t have any evidence that took place,” said Nunes, a crucial Trump ally and member of his national security transition team, who nevertheless fanned the flames of Trump’s theory in a press conference.
“Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong. But if you’re not going to take the tweets literally – and there is a concern that the president has about other people, other surveillance activities looking at him and his associates, either appropriately or inappropriately. We want to find that out,” Nunes said.
Trump created a political firestorm on 4 March in a series of tweets that called Obama a “bad (or sick) guy” for an allegation that, from the start, US officials called groundless and Obama unequivocally denied.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump tweeted.
Under existing surveillance law, the president of the United States does not have the power to order Americans surveilled. Security agencies seeking to conduct surveillance on Americans for counter-espionage or counter-terrorism purposes require a court order. Accordingly, Trump’s claim entailed an accusation that Obama and the security services had committed a felony.
James Clapper, who stepped down as director of national intelligence in January, has said no such order was ever issued.
It is legal to acquire Americans’ communications in the course of routine surveillance on foreign officials, as in the case of the Russian ambassador being in touch with the former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump, in a Fox News interview on Wednesday, did not back down from the accusation but misattributed it to a New York Times report in January about intercepted communications and financial records concerning Trump associates and Russian officials.
Asked why he had not relied on US intelligence for a claim with extraordinary legal implications, Trump bizarrely stated: “Because I don’t want to do anything that’s going to violate any strength of an agency.”
As the seriousness of Trump’s accusation settled on Washington, Trump’s aides struggled to defend it, and added more baroque claims atop it. Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway referred in an interview with the Bergen Record to “microwaves that turn into cameras”, something the White House subsequently claimed was a joke.
On Thursday, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, challenged the conclusion of the intelligence committees in a combative press conference, in which he insisted there was information of which Congress was not yet aware.
“The House and the Senate has not been provided all of the information,” a visibly frustrated Spicer told reporters Thursday, while adding: “The Department of Justice has yet to supply this.”
Despite Spicer’s assertion, the White House has yet to offer any evidence to back up Trump’s charge – either to members of Congress or the American public. At his press briefing, Spicer implied once again that the president’s claim was derived from “what other stations and people have reported”, even though there has been no credible reporting that Trump was wiretapped.
Spicer nonetheless refused to walk back Trump’s statement. “He stands by it,” Spicer said.
While the FBI has kept silent on Trump’s claim, its director, Jim Comey, is slated to testify on the Russia investigation on Monday before Nunes and Schiff’s committee, where he is almost certain to face questions about placing Trump and his associates under surveillance.
The House speaker, Paul Ryan, backed the findings of the intelligence committees, saying he had “seen no evidence” of Trump’s allegation against Obama.
“The intelligence committees, in their continuing, widening, ongoing investigation of all things Russia, got to the bottom – at least so far with respect to our intelligence community – that no such wiretap existed,” Ryan told reporters on Thursday on Capitol Hill.