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White House to Ask Congress to Probe 'Potentially Politically Motivated Investigations'

5 Mar 2017 4:17 pm
By Ted Mann 

The White House said Sunday it would ask Congress to investigate "potentially politically motivated investigations" before the 2016 presidential election, an apparent reference to President Donald Trump's claim, without evidence, that he was wiretapped by his predecessor.

Mr. 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," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a written statement also posted to Twitter.

"Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted," the statement said.

Mr. Trump triggered a furor Saturday morning when he alleged that phones at his Trump Tower skyscraper in New York had been tapped by former President Barack Obama.

The president doesn't have the legal authority to order wiretaps, and Mr. Obama's spokesman said the allegation was false.

The allegation spurred strong reactions from members of Congress, including some of Mr. Trump's fellow Republicans who called on the president to share with Congress any evidence he has regarding wiretapping.

The White House didn't provide clarification on what Mr. Trump may have been referring to or what evidence he had for his claims, though a recent article on the Breitbart website made similar allegations about the Obama administration. His claims threatened to overshadow a crucial upcoming week for Mr. Trump, in which he is scheduled to release a revised executive order on immigration and Republican-led congressional committees are set to begin producing health-care legislation.

Mr. Trump is spending the weekend in Palm Beach, Fla., at his Mar-a-Lago club. Around 9 a.m. Sunday, the presidential motorcade pulled into the Trump International Golf Club, where an aide said the president planned to hold meetings and take phone calls.

Sarah Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on ABC's This Week that Mr. Trump, in his comments on the alleged wiretapping, was "going off of information that he's seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential."

She added, "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." The reference to "potential" abuses was a change from Mr. Trump's tweets on Saturday, in which the president said unequivocally his phones had been tapped.

James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence under Mr. Obama, said on NBC's Meet the Press that "there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign." Mr. Clapper also said there was no surveillance court order on Trump Tower.

The president's tweets Saturday compared Mr. Obama to Joseph McCarthy and former president Richard Nixon. "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory," Mr. Trump tweeted at 6:35 a.m. "Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"

His postings also referred to Mr. Obama as a "bad (or sick) guy," compared any such phone tapping to the Watergate scandal, and suggested that "a good lawyer could make a great case" of the matter.

Public officials, including some of Mr. Trump's fellow Republicans, reacted sharply to the allegation. A spokesman for Mr. Obama said "neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."

Mr. Trump on Saturday evening called together several top advisers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and political strategist Steve Bannon, as the White House faced a growing outcry over the president's claims.

The meeting came as some prominent Republicans joined Democrats in calling on the president to explain his claims. Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement Saturday that Mr. Trump should "explain what sort of wiretap it was and how he knows this."

Mr. Sasse said the president's statement suggests he may have been illegally tapped, or the courts may have approved a legal wiretap out of national security concerns, which would raise its own set of questions. "We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the president's allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots," Mr. Sasse said.

Earlier on Saturday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), told an audience at Clemson University that Mr. Trump's claim of having been illegally wiretapped, if true, would be "the biggest scandal since Watergate." He added that he was also "very worried if in fact the Obama administration was able to obtain a warrant lawfully about Trump campaign activity with foreign governments."

Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.), also called on Mr. Trump to share any evidence for his claim, saying on Twitter that the president "should provide more info to Congress immediately to assess constitutionality and legality."

Messrs. Sasse, Graham and Amash have been among the Republicans most willing to publicly criticize Mr. Trump in the past. Still, few if any Republicans defended his comments Saturday.

Under the law, presidents can't legally order wiretaps. In a national security probe, investigators seeking a wiretap must persuade a judge there is probable cause that a target for 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 for electronic surveillance to be approved.

The conservative media outlet Breitbart, whose former chairman, Mr. Bannon, is Mr. Trump's political strategist, published an article Friday based on the claims 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 the Obama administration received authorization to conduct surveillance on the Trump campaign. Mr. Levin said that intelligence-gathering on the Trump campaign and its surrogates -- rather than the communications between Mr. Trump's allies and Russian officials -- should be investigated by Congress.

Mr. Trump's latest tweetstorm comes after a rough week for the administration, as positive reviews for his address to a joint session of Congress -- in which the president avoided ad hominem attacks and some of his harshest rhetoric -- faded in the face of revelations that Mr. Sessions hadn't testified accurately about his communications with the Russian ambassador during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Mr. Sessions said Thursday that he would recuse himself from investigations involving the Trump campaign. He added that his testimony was an accurate reflection of his understanding of the question posed at his hearing, since he had no ongoing contact with any Russian officials.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that intelligence officials were examining contacts involving Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, Mr. Sessions and others as part of a wide-ranging counterintelligence investigation.

Write to Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 05, 2017 11:17 ET (16:17 GMT)

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