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Republicans Mum on Trump Wiretapping Claims


House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, joined by, from left, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017.

Republicans Tuesday barely acknowledged the "big gray cloud" House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes said now hangs over the White House after FBI Director James Comey's revelation his agency is investigating ties between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign.

Comey's blunt debunking of Trump's claim accusing former President Barack Obama of conducting surveillance on him during the 2016 election was barely mentioned by House Republicans on Capitol Hill. They declined to comment while leaving a meeting with Trump, as he attempted to rally enough votes to pass a measure that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, front, and FBI Director James Comey, testify on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, front, and FBI Director James Comey, testify on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"Are you serious?" Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, said when asked if the president had addressed the wiretapping claim during the meeting ahead of Thursday's health care bill vote.

"Not at all. This was a health care meeting," Rep. Peter King, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee from New York, told VOA after listening to Trump's health care pitch to nervous Republicans.

Comey's sharp denial of the president's claims come at a politically sensitive time on Capitol Hill. Trump and Speaker Ryan are trying to wrangle conservative Republicans into voting for a health care bill whose success or failure could shape the future of the administration's legislative agenda.

"I don't think we learned anything new yesterday with Comey's testimony," said Ryan during his weekly press availability, as he downplayed the import of Comey's testimony.

"We're going to get to the bottom of things Russia," he said, "but it's very clear that we have seen and been presented with no evidence that Donald Trump or his staff were involved with this with the Russians."

Ryan's approach mirrored the strategy employed by Republicans in Monday's hearing as they shifted focus from possible Trump campaign ties to Russia to concerns about leaks of classified information.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, joined by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat, displays a letter to FBI Director James Comey saying Congress needs to get to the bottom of charges by President Trump that his offices were tapped by former President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign, March, 15, 2017, on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, joined by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat, displays a letter to FBI Director James Comey saying Congress needs to get to the bottom of charges by President Trump that his offices were tapped by former President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign, March, 15, 2017, on Capitol Hill.

"Is there an exception in the law for reporters who want to break a story?" Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina, asked Comey as he attempted to get to the bottom of leaks revealing that Trump's former National Security Advisor General Flynn had spoken with the Russian ambassador.

"There have been a lot of statutes involved in this investigations for which no one has ever been prosecuted or convicted, and that does not keep people from discussing those statutes — I'm thinking namely of the Logan Act," Gowdy said.

The Logan Act is a federal law prohibiting unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with a foreign government.

Before Monday's first public House Intelligence Committee hearing, Nunes, a Republican from California, said he remains "concerned that there was additional incidental collection that we are not aware of. If additional names were unmasked, we're going to have to understand, were proper procedures followed and did official names get leaked to the media?"

But Nunes' colleague on the committee, ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, said Tuesday that while leaks of classified information should be taken seriously, "you don't want to lose sight of the broader issue that's involved here, which is our democracy was hijacked by a foreign adversary."

"I think it's an effort at sleight of hand by the administration to say the only real issue here is leaks and everything else you don't need to pay attention to," he added.

White House reaction

Trump declined to address the issue during his trip Tuesday to Capitol Hill.

The usually outspoken president also did not issue any tweets, his favored means of replying to unfavorable news.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes a question from a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 21, 2017.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes a question from a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 21, 2017.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump would not withdraw the wiretapping allegation.

"We've started a hearing, It's still ongoing," Spicer told White House reporters. "There's a lot of areas that still need to be covered. There's a lot of information that still needs to be discussed."

Trump earlier derided suggestions that his campaign had colluded with Russian interests to win the election, calling it an excuse "made up" by Democrats unhappy at losing.

But for Rep. Schiff, the "big grey cloud" is a reality for Democrats and Republicans even if they won't directly say so.

"Things once unthinkable now seem quite routine." Schiff said Tuesday. "An air of semi-permanent crisis has settled over the nation's capital where there's a palpable disquiet. I think that disquiet crosses party lines."

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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