WASHINGTON — In the face of firm denials from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Attorney General Jeff Sessions of any evidence that President Barack Obama wiretapped then-candidate Donald Trump, Trump appears now to be walking back his explosive accusation by redefining the terms of the charge.
“Wiretap covers a lot of different things,” Trump told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in an interview aired Wednesday night. “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a similar argument in the White Press press briefing Tuesday, telling reporters, “The President used the word wiretap in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities.”
To be clear, when President Trump made the accusation in four early morning tweets on March 4, he did not describe surveillance in broad terms. He specifically accused the outgoing president of ordering wiretapping of the incoming president.
Mr. Trump tweeted first: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
In another one he wrote: “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!”
There are several crucial elements to Trump’s accusation. One, that Obama himself — not the FBI or intelligences agencies — ordered the tapping. Two, that the target of the tapping was Trump himself — not Trump associates or others. And, three, that it was wiretapping Obama ordered — not, as Spicer described, “surveillance and other activities.”
Such activity would be illegal, since the President cannot order this kind of surveillance. Rather, it requires US law enforcement to seek a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act through a FISA court.
FBI Director James Comey was the first to dispute the accusation, and was described by law enforcement officials to CNN last Tuesday as “incredulous” after Trump tweeted his claim.
On Wednesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Republican and a Trump appointee, said that he had not given the President reason to believe Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
“Look, the answer is no,” Sessions said when asked about the issue.
Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “no such wiretap existed,” citing intelligence reports to House leaders.
And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, issued a statement Thursday, saying “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.”
Also Wednesday, Nunes, a fellow Republican, told reporters he too does not believe “there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
His Democratic colleague, committee ranking member Adam Schiff, went further, saying: “There is absolutely no evidence of that and no suggestion of evidence of that.”
But Nunes, like Spicer, appeared to leave the door open to something short of the President’s original accusation.
“If you’re not going to take the tweets literally and there is a concern that the President has about other people, other surveillance activities looking at him and his associates — either appropriately or inappropriately — we want to find that out,” said Nunes.
The distinction is crucial.
CNN and other news outlets have reported that US intelligence intercepted communications between Trump advisers and Russians known to US intelligence during the presidential campaign.
These communications were intercepted during routine — and legal — intelligence gathering directed at foreign officials and other foreigners. By US law, when US citizens are on the other end of such conversations, their identities are “minimized”: that is, their names removed and contents of their portion of the conversations obscured.
If Trump, Spicer and others are now saying such surveillance is what the President was referring to in his March 4 tweets, they have more facts to back up the existence of such surveillance.
However, that is not what Trump said when he accused Obama of targeting himself, a US citizen, and thereby breaking US law. And that’s precisely what the attorney general, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the director of the FBI all say did not take place.