The White House Monday rolled back President Donald Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama had Trump’s phones wiretapped.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Trump’s March 4 tweets accusing Obama of ordering political surveillance should be taken in a broader sense given that Trump placed quotation marks around “wiretapped” and “wiretapping” in two of his four tweets.
The backpedaling followed a demand Sunday from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that Trump release proof of his allegation or retract it, along with comments from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, that he did not expect to see any evidence of illegal wiretapping. The Justice Department also asked the House Intelligence Committee for more time to comply with the panel’s request for evidence to substantiate the claim. The committee had set a midnight deadline.
“He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally,” Spicer said. “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. That is a widely reported activity that occurred back then. The president used the word ‘wiretapped’ in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities during that — and that is again something.”
Until now, Trump’s spokesmen have been insisting the House and Senate Intelligence committees thoroughly investigate the allegation, which Trump apparently got from a conspiracy theory offered on the alt-right Breitbart News website.
Spicer also suggested Trump wasn’t referring to his own phone necessarily when he said he had been wiretapped.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has denied any of the investigative agencies under his authority had tapped Trump.
The Trump campaign has been under scrutiny to determine whether it colluded with Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies concluded meddled in the presidential race by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s email and planted fake news stories on social media.
Experts have said the only way Trump campaign officials could have been placed under surveillance is if they turned up on taps of foreign agents under CIA scrutiny. In that case, the Justice Department would have gone to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for a warrant.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was forced to resign just weeks into the new administration because he lied about his Russian contacts to Vice President Mike Pence, and he has since registered as a foreign agent.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also has raised eyebrows over his failure to disclose during confirmation hearings that he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.