Donald Trump suffered the second bipartisan rebuke from Congress over his wiretapping claims in two days — and left it to his embattled spokesman, Sean Spicer, to explain that the president didn’t actually mean what he wrote.
The Republican chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday shot down Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Their statement comes a day after the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee also cast doubt on Trump’s claim.
The stunning rebukes from senior Republicans are the latest sign that many in the GOP are increasingly frustrated with a president who has made a habit of hurling inflammatory insults on Twitter at his political rivals — or even his reality-television rivals — often without evidence and sometimes based on conspiracy theories.
A defiant Spicer on Thursday responded by accusing reporters of ignoring key information and the intelligence committee leaders of speaking before they have all the facts.
In a heated news conference, Spicer also sought to recast Trump’s words, saying the president’s tweets about Obama ordering the tapping of his phones were not meant to be taken literally. He pointed to news reports indicating some Trump associates might have been under surveillance during the campaign because of suspected ties to Russia.
“There’s no question that there were surveillance techniques used,” he said.
Spicer’s news conference came after Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia issued a joint statement saying they had seen no evidence to support Trump’s wiretap allegation.
“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,” Burr and Warner said.
On Wednesday, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who was a member of the Trump transition team’s executive committee, said he doesn’t think “there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
“Are you going to take the tweets literally?” Nunes said. “If you are, then clearly the president was wrong.”
The leaders of the intelligence committees were briefed last week behind closed doors by FBI Director James Comey, who is set to be asked on Monday to comment publicly on Trump’s claim during testimony before the House panel.
Nunes added that while it doesn’t appear Trump Tower was wiretapped, he is concerned that Trump campaign aides could have been under inadvertent surveillance.
This is called incidental collection, and it can occur when people in the United States communicate with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance. The identities of Americans whose communications are inadvertently collected are normally kept secret, though they can be “unmasked” under certain circumstances for foreign intelligence purposes.
Nunes and his panel’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, sent a letter Wednesday to the intelligence community asking for the names of campaign officials who have been unmasked.
Trump defended his wiretap claim Wednesday in an interview with Fox News, saying he planned to submit evidence soon to the House Intelligence Committee.
“You’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” Trump said, pointing to news reports to back up his allegation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also declined to defend Trump’s claim on Thursday.
“We’ve seen no evidence of that,” Ryan told reporters when asked about the issue.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, said that while he was glad the intelligence committee leaders were speaking out, he thought the Justice Department and FBI needed to clarify matters.
“I strongly believe that these statements by political leaders should not be a substitute for a public response from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice on this matter,” the South Carolina senator said. “I believe such a statement would serve the public well, and I fear that without an official answer this issue will continue to linger.”
The wiretapping allegations date back to March 4, when Trump tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
Obama administration officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, quickly denied the claim, and Comey reportedly wanted the Justice Department to issue a disavowal. The department has not done so.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are both investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia as part of larger probes into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
As part of its investigation, the House panel has asked the Justice Department to turn over any evidence to support Trump’s claim, including possible warrant applications. The committee has given the department a firm deadline of next Monday, when Comey is scheduled to testify, to provide the documents.
“If the committee does not receive a response by then, the Committee will ask for this information during the March 20 hearing and may resort to a compulsory process if our questions continue to go unanswered,” said Jack Langer, a spokesman for the House intelligence panel.
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