WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The White House on Sunday demanded that Congress, which already is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, also examine whether former President Barack Obama abused his executive powers in connection with that campaign.
The request followed President Donald Trump’s claim Saturday that his predecessor had tapped the telephones at Trump Tower. Trump offered no supporting evidence, a spokesman for Obama said the claim is “simply false,” and lawmakers in both parties asked for proof.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama, said Sunday that no such wiretap activity was carried out against Trump as a candidate or against his campaign.
“Absolutely, I can deny it,” said Clapper, who left the White House when Trump took office Jan. 20.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the request to Congress in a statement Sunday that referred to “very troubling” reports “concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election.”
Spicer did not respond to inquiries about citing those reports.
Trump said the wiretapping happened in October at Trump Tower, the New York skyscraper where he ran his campaign and transition. It’s also where he lived before taking office.
“President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive-branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” Spicer said.
Spicer’s chief deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said she thinks Trump is “going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential.” If the conduct alleged is confirmed, Sanders said it would amount to the “greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself.”
“The American people have a right to know if this took place,” she said of a congressional inquiry.
Josh Earnest, who was Obama’s press secretary, said presidents do not have authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens, as Trump has alleged was done to him. FBI investigators and Justice Department officials must seek a federal judge’s approval to investigate by demonstrating that probable cause exists.
Earnest accused Trump of leveling the allegations, in a series of tweets Saturday, in an attempt to distract from the attention being given to campaign-season contacts by his aides with a Russian official, including campaign adviser Jeff Sessions before he resigned from the Senate to become attorney general. The FBI is investigating those contacts, as is Congress.
“There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal,” Earnest said. “And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet.”
In his tweets, Trump suggested Obama was behind a politically motivated plot to upend his presidential campaign. He compared the alleged events to “Nixon/Watergate” and “McCarthyism!” And he called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy.”