President Donald Trump on Saturday made the stunning accusation that former President Barack Obama last year ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower, an allegation that an Obama spokesman denied as “simply false.”
In early morning tweets, Trump said he had just found out about the wiretaps and likened them to two Washington scandals — “McCarthyism” and “Nixon/Watergate.” He attacked Obama personally as a “Bad (or sick) guy!”
Trump offered no evidence for his charge that a sitting president had sought to conduct surveillance of a presidential candidate.
In a statement, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said, “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice.”
Lewis added, “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Trump’s tweets prompted angry reactions from Obama aides. His comments also rattled some Republican senators.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told a town hall meeting that he’s worried both about Trump’s charge Obama did something illegally and that Trump was wiretapped legally because of his ties to Russia. “So it’s my job as a United States senator to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
A president cannot order a wiretap. But under a 1978 law, the FBI can do so if a secret special court accepts its request showing probable cause that someone is committing a crime or colluding with a foreign intelligence service.
Trump might have been reacting to a story Friday in Breitbart News, once run by his senior adviser Stephen Bannon, or a Thursday broadcast by conservative talk show host Mark Levin, an administration source told Bloomberg News.
The story and Levin said the Obama administration sought to “undermine” Trump’s campaign and administration by taking various steps, including seeking a wiretap.
The story said the FBI sought permission for a wiretap from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in June but was turned down. Agents then narrowed the request to a computer server in Trump Tower and succeeded, the story said.
According to an Oct. 31 New York Times story, the FBI pursued an investigation into a Russian role in the presidential campaign beginning last summer. Agents chased a lead that a computer server at Trump Tower was connected to Russian banks, but came to doubt it, the Times reported.
Trump, who is spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, launched his series of tweets early Saturday.
At 6:35 a.m. he wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
In another, he hinted at legal action: “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!”
And at 7:02 a.m. he concluded with: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Neither the White House nor the FBI responded to queries about the tweets.
Trump’s tweets came after news reports said six of his top campaign aides had contacts last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak or other Russian officials, and two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any probes of the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions took that step after news reports said he had failed to tell his Senate confirmation hearing in January that he had met twice with Kislyak when senators asked about contacts with Russian officials.
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia influenced the election to help Trump win. Senate and House committees are investigating the role of Russia in hacking and interfering in the presidential election.
Former Obama administration officials took offense at the personal attacks on Obama. “No President can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you,” former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes tweeted in response to Trump’s messages.
Democratic lawmakers charged that Trump was trying to divert the attention of the public from the controversy over his campaign’s ties to Russia and his own positive approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The Deflector-in-Chief is at it again. An investigation by an independent commission is the only answer,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted.
In a statement, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said, “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots.”
Sasse said Trump “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.”