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White House Moderates Wiretapping Allegations, Urges Further Investigation

  • Peter Heinlein

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 13, 2017.

The Justice Department has asked for more time to respond to congressional requests to supply evidence for allegations by President Donald Trump that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York telephones during the campaign.

Trump gave no proof when he tweeted the accusations earlier this month.

But White House spokesman Sean Spicer says Trump did not mean to imply that Obama tapped his phone.

Speaking at Monday's White House briefing, Spicer attempted to moderate statements the president has made on Twitter suggesting Obama ordered surveillance of his New York City hotel.

"He doesn't really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally," Spicer said.

Trump created a sensation earlier this month when he tweeted: "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!"

In a separate tweet later, Trump wrote: "I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!"

"If you look at the president's tweet," Spicer explained, "he [Trump] said very clearly 'wiretapping' in quotes. That spans a whole host of surveillance options. I think there've been numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seem to indicate there's been different types of surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election."

Earlier, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said she had no evidence to support the president's wiretapping claim.

In an interview broadcast on CNN early Monday, Conway said, "I'm not in the job of having evidence. That's what investigations are for."

FILE - White House adviser Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Howard Kurtz during a taping of his "MediaBuzz" program on the Fox News Channel in New York, March 10, 2017.
FILE - White House adviser Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Howard Kurtz during a taping of his "MediaBuzz" program on the Fox News Channel in New York, March 10, 2017.

Neither the White House nor senior intelligence officials have offered any evidence that would indicate any wiretapping took place, and an Obama spokesman has called the allegation "simply false."

Spicer told reporters Monday that the White House expects the Department of Justice to reply to a request from congressional intelligence committees for information to support the wiretapping charges.

"My understanding is that they will," he said.

The House Intelligence Committee had set a Monday deadline for evidence supporting the allegations. However, the Department of Justice said on Monday evening it had requested more time to respond to the request from lawmakers.

The department requested "additional time to review the request in compliance with the governing legal authorities and to determine what if any responsive documents may exist," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Critics speak out

Trump's critics have roundly denounced the wiretap claims.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Representative Adam Schiff of California, told ABC News Sunday he does not see any evidence.

"Either the president made up this charge," he said, "or perhaps more disturbing, the president actually believes this."

FILE - Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 14, 2017.
FILE - Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 14, 2017.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told CNN, "The president has one of two choices: either retract or provide the information that the American people deserve. Because if his predecessor violated the law, President Obama violated the law, we've got a serious issue here, to say the least."

McCain said he has "no reason to believe the charges are true."

Wiretapping law

Under U.S. law, a president cannot order someone's phone to be wiretapped. He would need approval by a federal judge and would also have to show reasonable grounds to suspect that a citizen's telephone calls should be monitored, such as if he were suspected of criminal wrongdoing. The White House said last week that Trump is not under criminal investigation.

The wiretap charges are part of congressional investigations into the details behind the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia meddled in the presidential election to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. The probes also are looking into Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials before and after the November vote.

U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia hacked into the computer of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks then releasing thousands of his emails in the weeks before the election. The emails showed embarrassing behind-the-scenes efforts by Democratic operatives to help Clinton win the party's presidential nomination.

Some information in this report from Reuters.

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