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Senators Ask For Proof of Trump’s Claim of Wiretapping

To support Trump or call his bluff?

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07:  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) walks to the Senate Chamber for a vote February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted to confirm Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, with a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) walks to the Senate Chamber for a vote February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted to confirm Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, with a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) walks to the Senate Chamber for a vote February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted to confirm Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, with a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims that former president Barack Obama wiretapped him, two senators asked the Justice Department if it has any proof to back up the extraordinary allegation.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, sent a letter Wednesday to the FBI and Department of Justice requesting any information they have on possible eavesdropping on Trump or his campaign.

Rather than a show of solidarity with the White House, however, it could be a move to call Trump’s bluff. On Saturday, the president tweeted an unsubstantiated claim Obama wiretapped Trump and Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.

After President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims that former president Barack Obama wiretapped him, two senators asked the Justice Department if it has any proof to back up the extraordinary allegation.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, sent a letter Wednesday to the FBI and Department of Justice requesting any information they have on possible eavesdropping on Trump or his campaign.

Rather than a show of solidarity with the White House, however, it could be a move to call Trump’s bluff. On Saturday, the president tweeted an unsubstantiated claim Obama wiretapped Trump and Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.

White House surrogates struggled to explain the allegations on Sunday talk shows and cited no evidence or further details.  And on Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer raised more questions about the president’s claim: “There is no reason to believe that he is the target of any investigation.”

In their letter, Graham and Whitehouse wrote that “we would take any abuse of wiretapping authorities for political purposes very seriously.” And they added: “We would be equally alarmed to learn that a court found enough evidence of criminal activity or contact with a foreign power to legally authorize a wiretap of President Trump, the Trump Campaign, or Trump Tower.”

The lawmakers addressed their letter to FBI Director James Comey and Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente. Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving Russia last week after reports emerged he misled a Senate panel on his meetings with Russia’s ambassador in Washington during the presidential campaign. Critics have accused Trump of trying to change the subject and distract attention from the unanswered questions surrounding his campaign’s contacts with Moscow.

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee accepted the president’s request for an investigation Tuesday. “We should be able to determine in fairly short order whether this accusation is true or false,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters.

Obama and former senior U.S. intelligence officials flatly rejected Trump’s allegations. “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false,” an Obama spokesperson said.

And former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday:  “For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the President-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.”

In their letter, the senators acknowledged that any warrant applications and court orders provided by the Justice Department would have to be “redacted as necessary to protect intelligence sources and methods that may be compromised by disclosure, and to protect any ongoing investigations.”

Trump’s accusation, for which he offered no evidence, seemed to imply he thinks presidents have the power to order the FBI or spy agencies to eavesdrop on American citizens. But under U.S. law, only the FBI or intelligence agencies — not the president — can be granted a warrant to conduct such surveillance, and only after persuading a court that it has sufficient cause. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created in 1978 to oversee eavesdropping requests to prevent abuses that had been revealed during the Nixon administration.

Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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