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FBI Asks Justice Department to Refute Trump's Wiretap Claim -- 2nd Update

6 Mar 2017 1:38 am
By Aruna Viswanatha and Ted Mann 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has asked the Justice Department to publicly rebut President Donald Trump's accusation that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, people familiar with the matter said, raising the specter of a clash within the administration over probes into the Trump campaign and Russia.

The FBI's unusual request came as the White House on Sunday pressed to back Mr. Trump's suggestions, made in earlier tweets and without evidence, that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower, where Mr. Trump lived and worked during last year's presidential campaign. A president can't legally order a wiretap, and Mr. Obama's office flatly denied the allegation.

The FBI, which would likely handle any such wiretaps, didn't publicly comment on the tweets. It instead asked officials at the Justice Department, of which it is a part, to explain that no such wiretaps existed, the people familiar with the matter said. The department as of late Sunday hadn't issued any such statement. News of the FBI request was first reported by the New York Times.

The charges by Mr. Trump came days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations related to the 2016 election. Mr. Sessions's move was prompted by reports he'd been in contact with a Russian official while advising Mr. Trump's campaign, which appeared at odds with his Senate testimony.

Because Mr. Sessions stepped away from the probe, any decision about issuing a statement would fall to Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who is in the job in an acting capacity.

Mr. Trump triggered the furor with a series of tweets Saturday alleging that phones at his Trump Tower skyscraper in New York had been tapped by Mr. Obama. The White House said the congressional intelligence committees should investigate and that it wouldn't comment further until that happened.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on ABC that Mr. Trump wanted the allegations examined because if true, "this is the greatest overreach, and the greatest abuse of power, that I think we have ever seen." That was a change from Mr. Trump's unequivocal allegation Saturday that his phones had been tapped.

The president's fellow Republicans appeared unsure what to make of his assertions. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel would work in a bipartisan way to determine the facts.

"If it's true, we'll find out very quickly," Mr. Rubio said on CNN. "And if it's not true, obviously he'll have to explain what he meant by that."

Democrats reacted more strongly, and were especially critical of a reference by Mr. Trump to Mr. Obama as "sick." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said the wiretapping allegation was an attempt by Mr. Trump to distract from his campaign's alleged connections to Russia.

"It's just ridiculous for President Trump to say President Obama would ever order any wiretapping of any American citizen anywhere," Mrs. Pelosi said on CNN.

In the initial tweet, at 6:35 a.m. Saturday, Mr. Trump wrote, "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" He referred to Mr. Obama as a "bad (or sick) guy," compared the alleged tapping to the Watergate scandal and suggested that "a good lawyer could make a great case" of the matter.

The White House didn't provide clarification on what information Mr. Trump was relying. A recent article on the Breitbart website, whose former chairman, Steve Bannon, is Mr. Trump's political strategist, made similar allegations about the Obama administration.

Reports have occasionally suggested that federal investigators sought court permission for surveillance at Trump Tower as part of a probe into possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.

On Sunday, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under Mr. Obama, rejected Mr. Trump's assertion.

"There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president -- president-elect at the time -- as a candidate, or against his campaign," Mr. Clapper said on NBC. There was no court surveillance order regarding Trump Tower, Mr. Clapper said, adding, "I can deny it."

The back-and-forth means Republicans are heading into a potentially pivotal week facing another distraction.

GOP leaders plan to tackle the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in earnest this week, with two House committees beginning to produce legislation. The White House intends to issue a revised executive order on visas and refugees, hoping to regain the initiative on immigration. And two Justice Department nominees face confirmation hearings.

Those actions could now be overshadowed by questions about Mr. Trump's statements and language. This continues a pattern in which GOP leaders, hoping to deploy their newfound control of government to advance long-sought goals, find themselves instead answering questions about unsubstantiated statements by Mr. Trump on issues such as election fraud and inauguration crowd size.

"It would probably be helpful if he gave more information, but it also might be helpful if he just didn't comment further and allowed us to do our work," Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) said on CBS. A thorough investigation is important, she added, "so that we can get on with the business of this country."

The president's unpredictable tweets have thrown Republicans off-balance, prompting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to say in an interview last month, "It would be, I think, easier for us to succeed were there fewer daily tweets."

U.S. law prevents a president from personally ordering a wiretap, in order to guard against potential abuses of power.

To obtain a wiretap, federal investigators conducting a national-security probe must persuade a judge there is probable cause that a target of surveillance is an agent of foreign intelligence and that the main purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information. Investigators sometimes face a higher bar if the target is an American citizen.

In a criminal probe, investigators must show probable cause that a crime has been committed.

The conservative media outlet Breitbart published an article Friday based on the allegations of a right-wing radio host that intelligence agencies were conducting a "silent coup" against Mr. Trump. The host, Mark Levin, and the Breitbart article assert that the Obama administration received authorization to conduct surveillance on the Trump campaign.

The U.S. has occasionally faced incidents of illegal wiretapping. An FBI program in the 1960s, called Cointelpro -- for Counter Intelligence Program -- used electronic surveillance on political activists, including anti-Vietnam War protesters and civil rights organizers, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. A 1975 investigation by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D., Idaho) branded the practices illegal.

In 1972, operatives working for President Richard Nixon's re-election effort broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and tapped the phones; when the wiretaps malfunctioned, they returned and were captured, setting off the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced Mr. Nixon's resignation.

In part to guard against such abuses, Congress established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in 1978. The Court considers investigators' requests for permission to conduct electronic surveillance, physical search, and other investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes.

--Bob Davis and Amy Harder contributed to this article.

Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com and Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 05, 2017 20:38 ET (01:38 GMT)

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