President Trump’s assertion that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones before the election dominated the political talk shows on Sunday. Trump provided no evidence to back up the claim, and a spokesman for the former president branded the accusation as “simply false.”
Across the networks, the White House defended the commander in chief’s call for a congressional investigation into the matter, while Democratic lawmakers and former Obama administration officials dismissed the accusation as absurd.
On ABC’s “This Week,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to reframe Trump’s wiretapping claim — which he stated as a fact — as something that may have happened.
“All we’re saying is let’s take a closer look,” Huckabee Sanders said. “Let’s look into this. If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal.”
“If, if, if, if,” host Martha Raddatz countered. “Why is the president saying it did happen?”
“I think he’s going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential,” Huckabee Sanders replied. “And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was among those who labeled the suggestion that Obama tapped Trump’s phones as nonsense.
“The president of the United States did not tap Donald Trump’s phone,” Franken said on “This Week.” “I mean, that’s just ridiculous.”
Josh Earnest, who served as White House press secretary under Obama, agreed.
“Let me just remove the mystery here and explain to you and your viewers why it is false to say that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower,” Earnest said. “This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of an American citizen.”
Josh Earnest: This may "come as some surprise" to Pres. Trump, but a president can't "unilaterally order the wiretapping" of a US citizen. pic.twitter.com/oFgfZYvtts
— ABC News (@ABC) March 5, 2017
If the FBI decided to use its wiretapping authority, Earnest explained, “it would require FBI investigators, officials at the Department of Justice going to a federal judge, and making a case, and demonstrating probable cause to use that authority to conduct the investigation.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s tweets show “the president doesn’t understand how you obtain a wiretap.”
“To make that type of claim without any evidence is, I think, very reckless,” Warner said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper categorically denied any suggestion that communications at Trump Tower were wiretapped before the election.
“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate, or against his campaign,” Clapper said.
When asked by host Chuck Todd whether he could confirm or deny if a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Act order (or FISA) for such wiretapping existed, Clapper declared, “I can deny it.”
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) March 5, 2017
On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he has yet to see evidence to substantiate Trump’s allegation. Nonetheless, Cotton said he wasn’t troubled by Trump’s evidence-free tweet.
“Presidents are human,” he said.
Michael Mukasey, the attorney general under President George W. Bush, argued that there is a nuance Trump’s critics are missing.
“This is the difference between being correct and being right,” Mukasey said on ABC. “I think the president was not correct certainly in saying that President Obama ordered a tap on a server in Trump Tower. However, I think he’s right in that there was surveillance and that it was conducted at the behest of the Justice Department.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., says a special prosecutor ought to be appointed to investigate whether the Trump campaign broke any laws in its contacts with Russia and whether it was “complicit in working with the Russians to influence the election.”
“That needs a special prosecutor,” Schumer said on “Meet the Press.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating Russia’s election meddling, disagreed.
“I certainly don’t think we’re at that point at this moment,” Rubio told Todd. “The job of the intelligence committee is not to be a law enforcement agency. The job of the intelligence committee is to gather facts and evidence.”
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 5, 2017
“I’m not going to be part of a witch hunt,” Rubio added, “but I’m also not going to be part of a cover-up. I want us to put the facts out there, wherever those facts lead us. And I believe that is what the Senate Intelligence Committee will do.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement on Sunday saying that “reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling,” and that Trump is asking Congress to investigate.
“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,” the statement read. “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”
Shortly after saying he wouldn’t comment further, Spicer fired off a tweet calling attention to Mukasey’s interview on ABC.
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) March 5, 2017
Early Saturday morning, Trump unleashed a series of tweets claiming Obama had wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower prior to the 2016 election.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” he declared from his Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump is once again spending the weekend.
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!” he added.
It wasn’t clear what, exactly, Trump was referring to as he raged against his predecessor, whom he labeled a “bad (or sick) guy!” And the White House did not clarify from whom Trump had “just learned” this new information.
But a report published Friday by Breitbart News quoted conservative radio host Mark Levin, who outlined the alleged steps the Obama took “in its last months to undermine Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, later, his new administration.” The Washington Post reported that the Breitbart article had been passed around in the White House ahead of Trump’s tweets.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, is a former chief executive of Breitbart.
“Everybody acts like President Trump is the one that came up with this idea and just threw it out there,” Huckabee Sanders said on “This Week.” “There are multiple news outlets that have reported this. And all we’re asking is that we get the same level of look into the Obama administration and the potential that they had for a complete abuse of power that they’ve been claiming that we have done over the last six months.”
Trump “just put another quarter in the conspiracy parking meter,” former Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, ex-chairman of House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN. “They have extended this story for a week, two weeks. Makes no sense to me whatsoever.”
On “Face the Nation,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Trump’s accusation “weakens the United States and makes us vulnerable to our enemies.”
But Panetta added: “The truth will determine what went wrong here.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rubio said he was puzzled by Trump’s wiretapping allegation.
“I’m not sure what it is he is talking about,” Rubio said. “Perhaps the president has information that is not yet available to us or to the public. And if it’s true, obviously we’re going to find out very quickly. And if it isn’t, then obviously he’ll have to explain what he meant by it.”
Either way, Schumer said, it’s bad news for Trump.
“If he falsely spread this kind of misinformation,” Schumer said on “Meet the Press,” “that is so wrong. It’s beneath the dignity of the presidency. It is something that really hurts people’s view of government. It’s civilization-warping, as Ben Sasse, conservative Republican, called it. And I don’t know of any president, Democrat or Republican in the past, [who] has done this. It shows this president doesn’t know how to conduct himself.
“On the other hand, if it’s true,” Schumer continued, “it’s even worse for the president. Because that means that a federal judge, independently elected, has found probable cause that the president, or people on his staff, have probable cause to have broken the law or to have interacted with a foreign agent. Now that’s serious stuff. So either way, the president makes it worse with these tweets.”
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