Sean Spicer spars with White House press corps over alleged wiretapping

WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had a heated exchange with a pair of reporters at his daily briefing on Thursday. The tense back-and-forth began with questions about President Trump’s allegation that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, Barack Obama. It devolved into shouting, repeated interruptions and an accusation from Spicer that the media is attempting to “perpetuate a false narrative” about Trump’s relationship with Russia.

The U.S. intelligence community has alleged that Russia interfered in favor of Trump during last year’s election. Congress is investigating Russia’s role in the campaign and this week, the FBI briefed the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and was specifically asked about Trump’s accusation. In a tweet sent earlier this month, Trump alleged that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” at the end of last year’s presidential election. The chairs of the Senate committee, Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, released a joint statement earlier on Thursday.

“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 statement said.

The first question in Spicer’s briefing on Thursday came from ABC News’ chief White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl, who asked about the intelligence committee statement. Karl pointed out that, on Tuesday, Spicer said the president was “extremely confident” that the Department of Justice would bring evidence to Congress that would “vindicate” his blockbuster allegation of wiretapping.

Karl said the intelligence committee’s conclusion about Trump’s claim “seems to be a pretty blanket statement” and asked Spicer for his reaction to it. Spicer initially responded to Karl’s question about the committee statement by criticizing the media.

“It’s interesting to me that, you know, just as a point of interest, that when one entity says one thing that … claims one thing, you guys cover it ad nauseam,” he said.

Spicer went on to claim that the press had remained silent about the fact that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., had indicated that it was possible that members of Trump’s campaign were captured during surveillance of Russian officials. Spicer also suggested that the media had ignored a statement Nunes made last month, declaring that there was no evidence available of criminal contacts between Trump’s associates and Russia.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., announces he will hold an open hearing to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election on Capitol Hill March 7, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., announces he will hold an open hearing to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election on Capitol Hill March 7, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“There was crickets from you guys,” Spicer said, later adding, “You don’t want to cover the stuff.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Nunes unequivocally stated, “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.” However, he did allow for the possibility that members of Trump’s team were indirectly surveilled. Nunes suggested that the real question was whether or not Trump’s comments about wiretapping should be taken “literally.”

“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 if there is a concern that the president has about other people, other surveillance activities looking at him or his associates, either appropriately or inappropriately, we want to find that out,” Nunes said.

At the same press conference, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, also said there was no proof of Trump’s allegation.

“To date, I’ve seen no evidence that supports the claim that President Trump made, that his predecessor had wiretapped [him] and his associates at Trump Tower,” said Schiff.

After Spicer accused the press of ignoring Nunes’ point, Karl cut in to stress that members of both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have said there was no evidence of wiretapping at Trump Tower. Spicer interrupted him.

“No. No. Hold on!” Spicer said.

Spicer again pointed to Nunes’ comment that, even though there is no indication of a wiretap, there may have been other indirect surveillance that captured members of Trump’s team. The press secretary also noted an interview with Fox News that aired Wednesday in which Trump suggested at his use of the term “wiretap covers a lot of different things” and should not necessarily be taken literally.

“I think the president’s been very clear. When he talked about it last night, when he talked about ‘wiretapping,’” Spicer said, making air quotes with his hands, “he meant surveillance. And there have been incidents that occurred.”

Spicer further argued that the press “choose not to cover” the possibility that other forms of surveillance had been conducted, other than a wiretap installed to monitor Trump Tower. Karl attempted to get a word in, but Spicer cut him off.

“Where was your passion and where was your concern when they all said that there was no connection to Russia? Where was it then? Crickets from you guys,” said Spicer.

When Karl tried to ask follow-up questions, Spicer interrupted him again.

“Hold on! … I’m trying to answer your question, Jonathan, if you could calm down,” Spicer said.

Spicer went on to cite a series of news stories that suggested that intelligence agencies were investigating Trump and his team during the final days of the Obama administration.

The articles Spicer pointed to included a story from the news site Circa that claimed the FBI’s probe into Russia’s role in the election “briefly” involved an investigation into a computer server linked to Trump’s real estate company. The story said that unnamed intelligence officials were frustrated with leaks about the investigation that lacked proper “context” and blamed the situation on Obama’s decision to grant the National Security Agency wider leeway to share details about information gathered from surveillance. Spicer also read from a report from the conservative site Heat Street that claimed “two separate sources with links to the counterintelligence community” had confirmed that the FBI was granted a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court warrant to “examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia.” He suggested that all of this demonstrated that Obama’s administration was conducting some level of surveillance on Trump’s team.

“Putting the published accounts and commonsense together, this leads to a lot,” Spicer said.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds his daily press briefing at the White House in Washington on March 16, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds his daily press briefing at the White House in Washington on March 16, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Karl questioned whether this meant that the president still believes his accusation, even though the congressional committees report there is no such evidence.

“Are you saying that the president still stands by his allegation that President Obama ordered wiretapping or surveillance of Trump Tower, despite the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee says they see no indication that it happened?” Karl asked.

Spicer argued that Karl was “mischaracterizing” the committee’s position in light of the potential that further evidence could be presented and said that the president remains confident of his accusation.

“He stands by it,” Spicer said of Trump.

Karl pressed Spicer on whether the president would be “vindicated.”

“I believe he will,” Spicer said.

Spicer again pointed to Trump’s Fox News interview and to press reports indicating that members of Trump’s team were investigated and monitored.

“The president said last night that … there will be additional information coming forward,” Spicer said. “There’s a ton of media reports out there that indicate that something was going on during the … election.”

Members of Trump’s team are concerned that there have been leaks of information from the probes into Russia’s role in the campaign. Those leaks included transcripts of calls between Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

The calls could have been recorded as part of routine surveillance of Russian officials and are not proof there was a wiretap that focused on Trump’s team.

Spicer subsequently took a question from CNN’s senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Acosta noted that one of the sources Spicer had cited was the Fox News host Sean Hannity, a frequent booster of Trump.

“I get you’re going to cherry-pick,” Spicer said. “You also tend to overlook all of the other sources … because I know you want to cherry-pick it.”

Acosta countered that CNN and other outlets have done “plenty of reporting” on the “connections between … associates of the president” and Russia, arguing that it has “all been looked at.”

“It sounds like during the context of that investigation, there might have been some intercepted communications,” Acosta said, conceding that members of Trump’s team could have been surveilled in some way.

“We have reported that, and others have reported that,” Acosta added.

Press secretary Sean Spicer takes questions in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room on March 16. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Press secretary Sean Spicer takes questions in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room on March 16. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Spicer questioned why Acosta believed he was “such an expert on this.” When Acosta attempted to return to some of the questions raised by Karl, and to whether Trump continues to believe there was a wiretap of Trump Tower, Spicer returned to his claim that the president was using the term “wiretapping” more generally.

“I think that’s cute, but at the end of the day, we’ve talked about this for three or four days,” Spicer said. “The president had the ‘wiretapping’ in quotes. He was referring to broad surveillance.”

Acosta challenged Spicer and said that members of Trump’s team might indeed have been examined because there was an investigation into their contacts with Russia. Spicer fired back and suggested that Acosta was leaping to conclusions about a potential investigation, despite the fact that, as a reporter, he did not have access to classified information.

“You’re coming to some serious conclusions for a guy that has zero intelligence,” Spicer said.

This remark prompted laughs from the reporters in the briefing room.

“Give me some credit,” Acosta quipped.

“I’ll give you some,” Spicer responded.

“I have a little intelligence maybe,” said Acosta.


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