During a wide-reaching congressional hearing on alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, FBI Director James Comey attempted to put to bed a wild accusation from President Trump that former President Obama wiretapped his phone in Trump Tower.
“I’m not going to try and characterize the tweets themselves,” Comey said during a line of questioning from House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff. “All I can tell you is we have no information that supports them.”
It’s been over two weeks since Trump took to Twitter on a Saturday morning and, without providing any evidence, said: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Multiple reports after the thread of tweets took place indicated that Trump had based his tweets not on official intelligence he had received, but on a story he had read on Breitbart.
“The president stated, quote, ‘Is it legal for a sitting president to be wiretapping prior to a race for election, turned down by court earlier, a new low,’ unquote,” Schiff pressed on during the hearing. “Director Comey, can you answer the question, would it be legal for president Obama to have ordered a wiretap of Donald Trump?”
“I'm not going to characterize or respond to the tweets themselves,” Comey reiterated. “I can tell you in general, as Admiral Rogers and I were just saying, there is a statutory framework in the United States under which courts grant permission for electronic surveillance, either in a criminal case or a national security case based on a showing of probable cause. It’s a rigorous, rigorous process that involves all three branches of government and it’s one we’ve lived with since the late 1970s. That’s how it works. So no individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone. It has to go through an application process, ask a judge, the judge can then make the order.”
Comey was far from the first person to explicitly say that Trump’s tweets lacked any real evidence.
Later on in the hearing, Comey was even given the opportunity to respond to the president falsely tweeting from his official account during the hearing that "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process," with a link to part of the hearing. Asked about that misleading tweet, Comey said: “It certainly wasn’t our intention to leave that impression today.”
While Comey didn't go so far as to suggest it, former Obama Pentagon and CIA chief Leon Panetta told The Daily Beast that Trump should say sorry for the claim he made. “He ought to accept the responsibility of acknowledging…that there is no evidence that in fact, President Obama ordered any wiretapping,” Panetta said. “He ought to acknowledge the mistake that was made. He ought to apologize to President Obama, and…move on.”
“This whole episode has kind of hurt his credibility,” Panetta said, adding that if he were Trump’s chief of staff, “I would recommend he stop tweeting.”
Last Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner issued a statement echoing Comey’s assessment of the wiretapping tweets, after a briefing from the FBI director.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” the statement read.
In addition, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes similarly said they had seen no evidence to back up Trump’s claims.
But that didn’t stop Trump and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer from standing by the original accusation.
During a press briefing last Thursday, Spicer said that Trump stands by the original claim and that he would be vindicated when the process of investigation is all over.
Trump himself spoke to Tucker Carlson on Fox News last week and asserted "Wiretap covers a lot of different things. I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks."
—Additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier