WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said there was no wiretap activity directed against President Donald Trump or his campaign by the Obama administration, as Trump has claimed without evidence in calling for a Congressional investigation.
"I can deny it," Clapper, weeks removed from serving as the top US intelligence official, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press when asked whether he could confirm or deny that a court order allowing for eavesdropping at Trump Tower in New York existed.
His comments contradicted explosive claims by Trump that President Barack Obama had the Republican's "wires tapped in Trump Tower just before" the 2016 election. Trump relied on reports in conservative media, including Breitbart News, for his conclusion, a person familiar with the situation told Bloomberg.
On Sunday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer called on Congress to investigate the wiretapping reports, but offered no evidence to back the allegations. Democrats said the White House was trying to shift focus away from ongoing investigations into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump's allegations came two days after the top US law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, removed himself from investigations of Russian interference with the election, including Russian contacts with associates of Trump related to the campaign.
"There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook," former Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said on ABC's This Week.
"And that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal." For a QuickTake on the Trump-Russia saga, click here.
Trump was furious about Sessions' recusal - a decision the attorney-general came to on his own - because it made the administration look weak, said a person familiar with the situation. The president on Friday yelled at senior staff in the Oval Office, an incident witnessed remotely by reporters with zoom-lens cameras waiting outside the building for Trump to board his Marine One helicopter for Joint Base Andrews and a weekend in Florida.
Early Saturday, the president kicked off the furor about alleged wiretapping with a series of tweets to his 26 million followers.
"Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory,'' Trump wrote on his personal Twitter account. "Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!''
The president said a "Nixon/Watergate" process was under way, and called Obama a "bad (or sick) guy".
No Comment In a statement, Spicer said Trump "is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016".
Neither the White House nor the president will comment further "until such oversight is conducted", Spicer said.
Clapper said if a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order had been approved to spy on Trump's home and office complex, he would "absolutely" have known it. "To my knowledge" there was no such order of anything at Trump Tower, he said.
"For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, was there no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time or as a candidate or against his campaign," Clapper said.
The DNI, the top intelligence official in the U.S. government, oversees the intelligence efforts of more than a dozen civilian and military agencies. "I can't speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity," Clapper said.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that the matter will be part of the ongoing inquiry.
Asked whether he's seen any evidence that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, Cotton said: "I've seen no evidence of the allegations we've seen in the media." Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also said in a statement on Sunday that his panel "will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party's campaign officials or surrogates, and we will continue to investigate this issue if the evidence warrants it".
Another White House aide, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, wouldn't say on in an ABC interview whether the contentions about the wire tapping - which an Obama spokesman has denied - were true.
Sanders, a deputy press secretary, was the highest ranking White House official to appear on Sunday political talk shows. "He's going off of information that he's seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential," she said of Trump's wiretapping contentions.
Attempted Deflection Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's State of the Union that if the Trump's allegations aren't true, "then, obviously, he'll have to explain what he meant".
Senate Democrats phrased their comments with care. "I am not aware of any FISA court order regarding Trump Tower," Mark Warner said on CBS's Face the Nation, a reference to the the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows warrants for eavesdropping.
Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the intelligence panel, referred back to the precise wording of Clapper's comment.
"I am not aware, as General Clapper has said, of any kind of FISA order that was somehow, you know, in effect bugging Trump Tower."
The Virginia lawmaker left open the possibility of a FISA order or other surveillance directed outside of Trump Tower or the Trump campaign.
'Wrap-Up Smear' Pelosi, on CNN, said Trump's contentions about Obama, and the call for a Congressional inquiry, were an attempt at deflection. "Rather than Russia, we're talking about, did President Obama do thus and so," she said.
"It's called a wrap-up smear," Pelosi said of the wiretapping claims. "You make up something. Then you have the press write about it. And then you say, everybody is writing about this charge. It's a tool of an authoritarian."
Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defence and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, said Trump's unproven accusations send "a terrible message'' to other countries. "It makes us vulnerable to our enemies,'' Panetta said on CBS.
That sentiment was echoed by Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "For a president of the United States to make such an incendiary charge - and one that discredits our democracy in the eyes of the world - is as destructive as it was baseless," he said in a statement.
Noted Clapper, "certainly the Russians have to be chortling about the success of their efforts to sow dissension in this country".