Over the past two weeks, controversy has arisen over President Trump’s accusations that the Obama administration ordered illegal wiretapping of his phones during the 2016 election.
On March 4, Trump tweeted “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
This was followed by more tweets repeating the accusations and comparing the incident to the Watergate scandal and stating a good case could be made against the former President for the wire-tapping.
Kevin Lewis, Obama spokesman, released a statement in response categorically denying the claims.
“No White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Lewis’ statement read. “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Backlash was felt in the intelligence community over the accusations, with FBI Director James Comey asking the Department of Justice to deny Trump’s claims.
James Clapper – Director of National Intelligence during the Obama administration – stated to the press that there had been no wire-tapping of Trump during the election by any national intelligence agency.
An official inquiry by Congressional intelligence communities into the matter was requested by Trump, to be added onto already ongoing investigations into alleged Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
“I think that there’s no question that something happened,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a March 6 audio-only press conference. “The question is, is it surveillance, is it a wiretap, or whatever?”
Over the next week, Spice continued to defend the tweets, stating the media was interpreting them too literally and the punctuation – namely quotation marks around wire-tapping – had an ambiguity to it.
“The president was very clear in his tweet that it was wiretapping,” Spicer said in a March 13 daily press briefing, “that that spans a whole host of surveillance types of options… He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally.”
The Department of Justice was requested to turn over all relevant documents for review by the House Intelligence Committee, with an initial deadline of March 13, extended to March 20 at the Department’s request.
Committee leaders would go on to state on March 15 that they had seen no evidence come forward to support Trump’s accusations.
“We don’t have any evidence that [the wiretapping] took place,” California Representative and Committee chairman Devin Nunes stated in a press conference.
“I think the challenge here is that President Obama wouldn’t physically go over and wiretap Trump Tower,” Nunes continued. “So now you have to decide 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’s 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.”
In an interview with Fox News that same night, Trump cited an article from the New York Times and a segment from a Fox News broadcast as the source for his accusations, though neither contained reports of Obama having Trump Tower wire-tapped.
“I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” Trump said.
An official statement was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 16, stating that no evidence had been found to support Trump’s claims.
It further stated, “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.”
During that same day’s press briefing, Spicer responded by claiming the committee’s current statement was not based on investigation, as they had not received all the documentation from the Department of Justice needed to look into the matter.
Spicer cited further news reports that supported Trump’s accusations, including a supposition by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that Obama used the Global Communications Headquarters, a British national intelligence agency, to spy on Trump as well.
“They’re not findings,” Spicer said. “There’s a statement out today they have not begun this. Two days ago the Department of Justice asked for an additional week. The statement clearly says at this time that they don’t believe that.”
A rebuttal was issued by Mark Warner, Virginia Senator and Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The bipartisan leaders of the Intelligence Committee would not have made the statement they made without having been fully briefed by the appropriate authorities,” Warner’s spokeswoman stated.
A apology was issued by Spicer to the UK after out-cry arose over the accusation of the GCHQ’s purported role in the surveillance, before being retracted and defended by stating Spicer had been citing public reports and not actually using them as fact.
A final report on the validity of the accusations by the Intelligence Committees is currently pending, awaiting a full review of the documentation turned over by the Department of Justice.