WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered an expansive definition Monday of what President Donald Trump meant earlier this month when he leveled charges of wiretapping against his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Spicer appeared to walk back Trump’s tweets — even noting the president’s use of quotation marks — as the Department of Justice requested a deadline extension from the House Intelligence Committee to determine whether documents exist to substantiate the surveillance allegation.
“He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally,” Spicer told reporters. “But I think there is no question that the Obama administration — that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election.”
The spokesman continued, “The president used the word ‘wiretap’ in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities during that.”
The administration has not produced proof for Trump’s allegation, made in a flurry of March 4 tweets, placing the onus on the congressional committees already probing Russia’s interference into the presidential election.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the agency called members of the House Intelligence Committee to “ask for additional time to review the request . . . and to determine what if any responsive documents may exist.”
The committee had set a Monday deadline in requesting that the agency turn over any evidence.
A spokesman for Obama has denied that either the former president or a White House official at the time ever ordered surveillance of a U.S. citizen.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump had tweeted, adding, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Asked whether what Trump says can be trusted, generally, Spicer said, “If he’s not joking, of course.”
Meanwhile, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway sought to clarify her own comments on Obama’s alleged surveillance while saying she also has no evidence.
She told the Bergen Record in an interview published late Sunday, “You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets — any number of ways.”
Though Conway appeared to be referencing what WikiLeaks has said were documents detailing CIA cyberspying tactics, she told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday, “I’m not Inspector Gadget. I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign . . . I’m not in the job of having evidence. That’s what investigations are for.”
Also Monday, Spicer defended the Department of Justice’s purging of Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys as “standard operating procedure” and said it doesn’t matter that Trump had told high-profile Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara in November that he could stay on.
“I’m not really sure how it’s relevant at the end of the day,” the press secretary said.
Spicer said separately that it is Trump’s intention to donate his salary at the end of the year and said the president wants members of the press to choose where the money will go.
“The way that we can avoid scrutiny is to let the press corps determine where to go,” Spicer said.
Trump hosted his first meeting of his Cabinet secretaries Monday at the White House, leaving four chairs empty to represent the top-level aides not yet confirmed by the Senate amid Democratic opposition.
He also signed an executive order calling for the review of executive departments and agencies to determine how and whether resources are being wasted.
The president’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, originally set for Tuesday, was rescheduled for Friday in anticipation of a snowstorm set to hit the region.