Trump's wiretapping tweets 'not to be taken literally'

Officials say US President was referring to broad surveillance efforts, not Obama's

WASHINGTON • Two senior White House officials have suggested that United States President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claim that then President Barack Obama had tapped his telephone was not meant to be taken literally.

They argued that Mr Trump had been referring more broadly to a variety of surveillance efforts during the presidential election campaign last year. "He doesn't really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

In fact, Mr Spicer said, when Mr Trump charged in a Twitter post last weekend that Mr Obama "had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower", he was referring generally to surveillance during the campaign - not to an actual telephone wiretap.

"The President was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, 'wiretapping'," Mr Spicer said, using his fingers to make a gesture suggesting quotation marks. "That spans a whole host of surveillance types of options."

Mr Spicer said there have been "numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seemed to indicate that different types of surveillance occurred during the 2016 election".

His remarks were the first time the White House has sought to explain the accusation that Mr Trump made in a series of tweets, saying Mr Obama "was tapping my phones" and calling the former president a "bad (or sick) guy."

MONITORING METHODS

What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other. You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets - any number of ways.

MS KELLYANNE CONWAY, Mr Trump's senior adviser, on the devices Mr Obama could have used to allegedly spy on the election campaign.

Ms Kellyanne Conway, Mr Trump's senior adviser, said in an interview witha New Jersey newspaper on Sunday that Mr Obama could have employed any number of devices other than a traditional telephone wiretap - even including a microwave oven.

"What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other," Ms Conway told the paper. "You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets - any number of ways." Surveillance can even be carried out with "microwaves that turn into cameras".

But Ms Conway clarified on Monday that she was not accusing Mr Obama of snooping via a kitchen appliance, arguing that her comments had been taken out of context.

The unusual and shifting explanations from Mr Spicer and Ms Conway reflected the contortions that members of Mr Trump's inner circle have employed to explain the President's explosive accusation. Neither Mr Trump nor anyone at the White House has presented any evidence for the claim, instead asking Congress to investigate it as part of its inquiry into Russia's interference in the presidential election.

The explanations came as the US Justice Department asked the House Intelligence Committee - who had given deadline of Monday to produce proof of Mr Trump's claim - for more time "to determine what, if any, responsive documents exist".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's wiretapping tweets 'not to be taken literally''. Print Edition | Subscribe