The Cable

House Intel Panel Will Investigate Trump’s Evidence-Free Wiretapping Claims

As momentum grows to investigate President Donald Trump’s connections to Moscow, questions remain whether a Republican Congress can hold a president of their own party account.

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The chairman and ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee said on Tuesday that their investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election will also examine President Donald Trump’s claim that his predecessor ordered that he be wiretapped, a claim for which the White House has so far refused to provide any evidence.

Over the weekend, Trump called on congressional investigators to look into his Twitter allegation that former President Barack Obama ordered that the real-estate mogul be placed under surveillance, a claim that may have originated with the right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who is known to entertain fact-free conspiracy theories.

On Tuesday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel will accept the president’s request.

“We should be able to determine in fairly short order whether this accusation is true or false,” Schiff told reporters. Since the abuses of executive-branch power in the 1970s, the president does not have the authority to order wiretaps, making Trump’s claim highly unlikely.

Speaking separately, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, said that he had so far seen no evidence that Obama ordered Trump’s phones tapped.

Legal experts note that American intelligence law was written to prevent precisely such abuses, and FBI Director Jim Comey has reportedly appealed to the Justice Department to issue a statement knocking down the president’s allegation. Comey is reportedly concerned that Trump’s statement implies the FBI broke the law. The Justice Department has issued no statement in response to Trump’s claim.

Through a spokesperson, Obama has emphatically denied ordering the wiretaps, and James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, said over the weekend that no such surveillance was ever ordered.

The American intelligence community has concluded that Russia intervened in the U.S. election to boost Trump’s chances, a claim that Trump has disputed, even as persistent questions about his and his advisers’ connections to Moscow continue to swirl. Just six weeks into his administration, the political firestorm around the Russian connection has already resulted in the resignation of his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and intense scrutiny of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Several congressional panels are now investigating the scope of Russian interference in the election and whether members of the Trump campaign may have colluded with Moscow in that effort.

Critics question if a Republican-controlled Congress can effectively investigate a sitting Republican president, but, so far, calls for an independent prosecutor or a special commission, akin to that created after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have run into a brick wall of GOP opposition.

On Tuesday, Schiff emphasized that the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation cannot become bogged down in partisan differences. In the upper house, Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he will not accept any investigation tainted by political concerns.

There is cause for concern among Democrats about whether congressional Republicans involved in the inquiry can maintain their independence from the Trump administration. Last month, the White House recruited Nunes and his Senate counterpart — Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — to push back against press reports that Trump aides were in frequent contact with Russian agents.

On Tuesday, Nunes questioned the accuracy of the U.S. intelligence assessment that the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. election on behalf of Trump. Nunes has close ties to the White House and served on the Trump transition team, and has shown a willingness shared by few Democrats to take the president at his word.

Asked Tuesday whether his investigation into Trump’s Russia ties would include an examination of his tax returns — which Trump, breaking decades of political convention, never released — Nunes told a reporter there was no need to do so.

“The president has said that he has no ties to Russia,” Nunes said. “I assume that is true.”

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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