Yoni Applebaum | The Atlantic | March 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

The White House Declines to Substantiate Trump's Wiretapping Claims

President Donald Trump walks near the White House in February. President Donald Trump walks near the White House in February. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

A day after President Donald Trump charged that President Obama had tapped his phones in advance of the November election, his spokesperson indicated that the White House did not intend to offer any evidence to substantiate that remarkable claim—and would not be offering further comment in the near future.

The statement capped 24 hours of intense speculation, as the administration and its allies sought to shift the focus of attention from reported contacts between Trump aides and Russia, to questions about how such contacts had been uncovered. Earlier in the week, Trump and his aides had blasted the leaks which had disclosed the contacts, and the news outlets which reported them; on Saturday, the president shifted to attack the basis of the electronic surveillance that reportedly documented the contacts.

Later on Saturday, The New York Times reported that “two people close to Mr. Trump said they believed he was referring to a Breitbart News article,” and not to any classified briefings or other intelligence reports to which he might have been privy. Several of his advisers, the Times reported, were “stunned by the president’s morning Twitter outburst,” left scrambling to substantiate the claims, for which the president provided no sources.

On Sunday morning, instead of offering evidence that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump’s phones, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a formal statement—in what is becoming a pattern for the administration on matters of particular import—broke it apart and tweeted it for good measure:

Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling.

President Donald J. 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.

Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.

In place of the president’s clear and affirmative claims of “Nixon/Watergate” level abuse of executive power, the statement cites only “reports” of “potentially politically motivated investigations.” It does not explain the basis for the president’s dramatic claims.

It also reverses the administration’s position on the utility of congressional investigations. Spicer has repeatedly dismissed questions about contacts between Trump affiliates and Russia, insisting that press reports based largely on anonymous sources were too flimsy to justify a probe. Just last week, he said that “Russia’s involvement and activity has been investigated up and down,” adding that “the question becomes at some point: If there’s nothing further to investigate, what are you asking people to investigate?” On Sunday, however, Spicer said that unspecified “reports” were a sufficient basis to request that “congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority.”

Spicer’s statement also fails to specify why, if the president possesses evidence that Obama abused his power, he wouldn’t release it to aid that investigation.  On Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes posed ten questions to Trump—reminders of the awkward queries the White House seems likely to face in the coming days, and which its position that it will not to “comment further until such oversight is conducted” will excuse it from answering.

It remains unclear what precisely what this pledge will mean, in practice; minutes after vowing no further comment from the White House, Spicer encouraged his followers to watch his principal deputy, Sarah H. Sanders, weigh in on the matter on ABC News’s This Week, and then tweeted approvingly that former Attorney General Michael Mukasey had said he thought the president was right that there was surveillance at the behest of the Obama Department of Justice.

Prior to the White House statement, several observers had raised questions about the breadth of the president’s claims, while simultaneously pointing to narrower concerns about media reports about surveillance that was allegedly authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. On Saturday, the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez highlighted the possibility that law enforcement might have engaged in “reverse targeting”—monitoring foreign individuals or entities primarily to gain information about American citizens.

Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse issued a statement on Saturday outlining his own concerns, including the prospect of an illegal wiretap. But he primarily focused on reports that some surveillance that intercepted communications from Trump associates was legally authorized. “If it was with a legal FISA Court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the Court found credible,” he said, in part. “The President should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives or operations be made available, ideally to the full public, and at a bare minimum to the U.S. Senate.” America, he said, faces “a civilization-warping crisis of public trust.”

If Spicer’s statement on Sunday is any indication, that crisis has no imminent path to resolution.

Comments
JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.