With threats of subpoenas and efforts to block a top Justice nominee, congressional leaders are ramping up pressure on the Justice Department and FBI to acknowledge whether there is any information to support President Trump’s widely disputed claim that the Obama administration wiretapped his New York offices in advance of the November election.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee told reporters Wednesday he has seen no evidence to support the claim.
“We don’t have any evidence that that took place,” California Rep. Devin Nunes said during a news conference at the Capitol. “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
Nunes said it was obvious that President Obama did not personally install listening devices in the building where Trump has offices and an apartment, so he said the committee has had to try to determine what the Trump did mean if his tweet could not be taken literally.
“If the White House or the president want to come out and clarify his statements more, it would probably, probably be helpful,” Nunes said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, indicated separately Wednesday that he has bipartisan support to seek subpoenas if FBI Director James Comey does not respond to Trump’s wiretap claims and outline the status of the bureau’s ongoing investigation into communications between Trump associates and Russian government officials.
“The bottom line is that a lot of Americans want to know what’s going on here,” Graham said at Senate hearing examining Russia’s efforts at undermining the U.S. political system and other democracies.
Graham said the FBI informed him late Wednesday that the bureau would be responding to lawmakers’ concerns in “a classified setting.”
If the request is not satisfied, Graham said there is Judiciary Committee support for issuing subpoenas to compel the information and to block the pending nomination of Rod Rosenstein, who is awaiting confirmation as the deputy attorney general.
Rosenstein’s position is especially crucial since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the federal Russia inquiry after it was disclosed that the former Alabama senator — and Trump campaign adviser — had met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the course of the general election campaign. Sessions did not disclose the meetings during his January confirmation hearings.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department, facing a separate deadline from the House Intelligence Committee to turn over information that might support Trump’s wiretap claims, asked for additional time to determine whether any information exists.
Nunes also said Wednesday he was demanding more answers from the intelligence community about efforts they make to prevent the release of the names of Americans who are caught on tape during surveillance of foreign officials.
He and Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is the ranking member of the panel, released a letter seeking answers about “unmasked” American identities by Friday. Nunes and Schiff said the committee would use its subpoena power if it does not get answers.
Comey and Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, will testify at a public hearing the Intelligence Committee will hold Monday, Nunes said. Another hearing will be held March 28 to hear from other witnesses.
Schiff said Comey would be asked publicly whether he has seen any evidence that substantiates Trump’s claim.
“It deeply concerns me that the president would make such an accusation without basis,” Schiff said.
He said it could be Trump was just reacting to something he saw on television, and the White House reaction has evolved over time.
“You can’t level an accusation of that type without retracting it or explaining just why it was done,” Schiff said. “I think there are, from a national security perspective, great concerns if the president is willing to state things like that without any basis, because the country needs to be able to rely on him, particularly if we have a crisis.
Trump sought to expand the definition of “wiretap” on Wednesday, telling a Fox News interviewer that it can mean a lot of different types of surveillance.
“But wiretap covers a lot of different things,” Trump told Fox’s Tucker Carlson. “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
Trump echoed his aides, who in recent days sought to expand the nature of Trump’s claims about Obama. While the president used the the term “wiretapping” in his March 4 tweets, spokesman Sean Spicer and other aides have said he was referring to “surveillance” in general.
On Wednesday, Spicer said Nunes said he has no evidence “at this time” and that a review is ongoing. “We’re still at the beginning stages of this,” Spicer said.
Spicer again said there was no connection between the Trump campaign and Russians who sought to hack the 2016 election. “There’s nothing there,” he said.
Shortly after Trump issued his wiretap claims in a series of tweets, Comey asked that Justice officials refute the president’s allegations. The Justice Department has not acted on that request. Separately, former director of national intelligence James Clapper has publicly denied that such surveillance of Trump Tower existed.
Also on Wednesday, Graham led a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism about how to keep Russians from interfering in future U.S. and European elections the way they did in the 2016 presidential election in America. The U.S. Intelligence Community issued a report in January concluding that the Russian government, at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, interfered in the election to try to help Trump and defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. The intelligence agencies also concluded that there was no evidence that the Russians tampered with the actual vote-tallying equipment.
Graham asked former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose country has been a victim of Russian hacking, what will happen if the U.S. “decided to forgive and forget” Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.
“I believe, sir, it would encourage them to continue,” Ilves told Graham, who supports stronger U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Kenneth Wainstein, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said America can expect more cyber attacks aimed at interfering in U.S. elections — not just from Russia, but also from China, Iran and North Korea. He added that the U.S. government should consider a wide range of counter measures, including possibly “hacking back” against Russia and other nations to discourage them from interfering in U.S. elections.
“The threat is real,” he said.
(h/t USA Today)