The White House has admitted that Donald Trump does not know what type of surveillance he is alleging he was put under by Barack Obama, despite a tweet on Saturday explicitly saying his phone was tapped.
Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, argued that there is “substantial reporting” to show the issue merits congressional investigation, but did not identify Trump’s sources.
Trump alleged, without citing evidence, that Obama ordered a wiretap of the phones at Trump’s election campaign headquarters in Trump Tower in New York. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” he tweeted early on Saturday morning. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Previous media reports have suggested that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) court granted a warrant to enable the FBI to conduct surveillance of “US persons” in an investigation of possible contacts between Russian banks and the Trump Organization.
The Guardian reported that the FBI applied for a Fisa warrant over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus.
According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.
On Sunday, Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, denied any such court order was obtained.
But Spicer told reporters on Monday: “It could be Fisa, it could be surveillance. I think he’s [Trump] made clear that there are continued reports that have been out there. I think the president made it clear yesterday that he wants Congress to go in and look at this. I think there is substantial reporting out there from individuals and from sources.”
The White House asked the Republican-led Congress to examine, as part of an ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in last November’s election, whether the Obama administration abused its authority.
But Spicer admitted he could not be more specific about what the abuse might have been. “I think that there’s no question that something happened. The question is, is it surveillance, is it a wiretap, or whatever?
“But there has been enough reporting that strongly suggests that something occurred and I think that’s why what he has said yesterday is that he wants Congress to look into this. And I think that there is enough out there now that makes one wonder how some of this happened without the existence of surveillance.”
A journalist attempted to press the issue further but Spicer interrupted him and said: “I’m going to put a pin in this.”
He added later: “The president speaks very candidly. His tweets speak for themselves.”
Trump’s early Saturday morning tweets – an extraordinary charge by an incumbent president against a predecessor – came shortly after similar claims were made by a conservative radio host, later summarised by the rightwing Breitbart News.
Pressed specifically on whether Trump based his accusations on a radio host, Spicer said: “He is not going to comment any further on this,” but added there were “numerous” reports, including one in the New York Times and “several sources brought this to light”.
Minutes earlier Spicer had railed against the media for basing reports about possible contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia on anonymous sources. “At some point I would ask people to take on-the-record sources.”
Trump would also ask Congress to look into the issue of “pervasive leaks” of classified information relating to national security, he added.
Asked if Trump had spoken to Obama before making the accusation, or indeed whether he had spoken to Obama since moving into the Oval Office, Spicer replied: “I’m not aware of whether or not they’ve talked. I can ask and get back to you.”
James Comey, the director of the FBI, asked the justice department to reject the president’s assertion because it was false and must be corrected, according to the New York Times and other media reports. The department has remained silent.
Spicer was questioned over whether Trump had spoken to Comey. “To the best of my knowledge, I’m almost 100% certain he has not,” he said. “I am not aware that actually happened.”
Leading Republicans have said they will honour the president’s request to investigate but conceded that they are not aware of any evidence for the president’s assertion.
On Monday Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, told CBS: “Thus far, I have not seen anything directly that would support what the president has said.”
Chaffetz added that it would take time for a House intelligence panel investigating the alleged Russia links to get to the bottom of the wiretapping allegation and that his committee would play a supporting role in this.
Meanwhile Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, called on the Department of Justice’s inspector general to investigate any possible political interference in its inquiries into contacts between Trump’s associates and Russia.
“The American people deserve to know if the investigation into Russia’s interference with our election and the administration’s contact with Russian officials has been compromised by political interference,” Schumer said.
“As we saw last week – when attorney general Sessions only decided to recuse himself after his misleading Congress regarding Russia contacts became public – this administration has not been forthcoming about its contacts with Russia, and are too slow to follow DoJ guidelines designed to ensure investigations are fair and independent.”
Schumer added: “We need to ensure that the investigation is impartial, and hasn’t already been compromised in any way by the Trump administration. That’s why I’m calling on the inspector general to get involved immediately.”
Fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House, has accused Trump of behaving like an autocrat. “It’s called a wrap-up smear,” she said. “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.”