No new evidence to support Donald Trump's wiretap claims, House intelligence chairman says
There was no proof in new documents provided to the US Congress by the Justice Department on Friday to support US President Donald Trump's claim that his predecessor had ordered wiretaps of Trump Tower, according to the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, but there never was, and the information we got on Friday continues to lead us in that direction," Representative Devin Nunes said on Fox News Sunday.
"There was no FISA warrant that I'm aware of to tap Trump tower" - a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a federal law that governs the issuance of search warrants in US intelligence gathering.
Nunes spoke a day before his panel holds its first public hearing on alleged Russian attempts to interfere in last year's presidential election - a subject that is certain to include discussion of contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives.
Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned last month after it was revealed that he had privately discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington before Trump took office.
Nunes said the new Justice Department documents, submitted in response to a congressional request, included "no evidence of collusion" between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives to swing the election in Trump's favour.
The lawmaker said he remained primarily concerned about leaks of US surveillance of conversations between Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
"That's the only crime we know has been committed right now," Nunes said, adding that Monday's hearing was "just the beginning".
"We're trying to get to everyone who, for lack of a better term, was at the crime scene," he said.
"We're trying to bring them all in, see what they knew, when they knew it, if they knew about the leaks, if they knew about General Flynn's name being unmasked. These are all questions that we need to get to the bottom of."
Trump last week refused to back down from his tweets on March 4 that claimed former president Barack Obama "had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory" and compared it to McCarthyism and the Watergate scandal. But no credible evidence has emerged to support those claims, and the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said last week that they have seen nothing that supports the allegation.
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
In a Fox News Channel interview on Thursday, Trump said, "I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks".
Nunes said Trump could be referring to new information about whether intelligence officials "unmasked", or identified, US citizens who were captured speaking with foreign officials who are under routine surveillance - a process governed by FISA.
"That is very possible, and we don't have the answers to those questions yet," he said. "We had a deadline of Friday for the NSA, FBI and CIA to get us those names that were unmasked through the FISA system. We didn't get those names on Friday, and until we get those names, we can't rule this out."
But Trump remains under pressure from members of his own party to back off his claims of illegal wiretapping - particularly after the furore intensified last week when White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that British intelligence may have played a role in the surveillance. Spicer later apologised for the claim and explained that he had repeated an unverified media report.
On ABC's This Week, another Republican on the House Intelligence Committee called on Trump to apologise for accusing Obama of ordering an illegal wiretap.
"To quote my 85-year-old father ... it never hurts to say you're sorry," said Representative Will Hurd, a former clandestine agent for the CIA.
"I think it helps with our allies. We've got to make sure that we're all working together. We live in a very dangerous world, and we can't do this alone. ... It's not just sorry to the president, but also to the UK for the claims or the intimation that the UK was involved in this, as well. It doesn't hurt. And it takes away from the rest of his agenda."
Hurd said that "some folks will probably be frustrated" by the hearing on Monday because the officials set to testify, including FBI director James Comey, might not be able to elaborate on investigative matters: "There may be an active investigation going on, a criminal investigation. And if there's an active criminal investigation, we need to allow law enforcement ... do their job."
In a separate interview on ABC's This Week, Senator Rand Paul focused on the leak of Flynn's communications with Kislyak and said those within the federal government who might have been responsible should undergo lie-detector tests.
"It is very, very important that whoever released that go to jail, because you cannot have members of the intelligence community listening to the most private and highly classified information and then releasing that to the New York Times," Paul said.
"There can only be a certain handful of people who did that. I would bring them all in. They would have to take lie-detector tests. And, I would say, including the political people, because some political people knew about this as well."
Paul said, using a term increasingly favoured by conservatives for members of the federal bureaucracy, "You will get a 'deep state'. You will have an intelligence community that has enormous power if that happens."
Hurd, however, pushed back on the notion that a deep state was seeking to undermine Trump. He said, "I spent 9-and-a-half years as an undercover officer. I was the dude in the back alleys at 4 in the morning collecting intelligence to protect our homeland... The men and the women in the CIA, they do their job regardless of who is in the White House. Same for NSA. Same for FBI. These men and women are putting themselves in harm's way."
If true, the alleged campaign of political interference by Russia, Hurd said, would "go down in the history of Mother Russia as the greatest covert action campaign" it had ever pursued.
"It created a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the White House, the intelligence community and the American public," he said.
"And that's why, as we go through this review and investigation, it has to be bipartisan. It has to be thorough. And it has to be thoughtful, because we are feeding into this covert-action narrative that the Russians are trying to create."
- The Washington Post