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Trump Aides Address His Wiretap Claims: 'That's Above My Pay Grade'
President Trump has no regrets. His staff has no defense.
After weeks of assailing reporters and critics in diligent defense of their boss, Mr. Trump's team has been uncharacteristically muted this week when pressed about his explosive – and so far proof-free – Twitter posts on Saturday accusing President Barack Obama of tapping phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
The accusation – and the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and the former national intelligence director, James R. Clapper Jr., emphatically deny that any such wiretap was requested or issued – constitutes one of the most consequential accusations made by one president against another in American history.
So for Mr. Trump's allies inside the West Wing and beyond, the tweetstorm spawned the mother of all messaging migraines. Over the past few days, they have executed what amounts to a strategic political retreat – trying to publicly validate Mr. Trump's suspicions without overtly endorsing a claim some of them believe might have been generated by Breitbart News and other far-right outlets.
"No, that's above my pay grade," said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary and a feisty Trump loyalist, when asked on Tuesday at an on-camera briefing if he had seen any evidence to back up Mr. Trump's accusation. The reporters kept at him, but Mr. Spicer pointedly and repeatedly refused to offer personal assurances that the president's statements were true.
"No comment," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier in the day. Last week, Mr. Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia.
"I don't know anything about it," John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, said on CNN on Monday. Mr. Kelly shrugged and added that "if the president of the United States said that, he's got his reasons to say it."
Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, have said they will add Mr. Trump's request to pre-existing inquiries into intelligence community leaks.
But Mr. Nunes and Mr. Burr said they had not seen specific evidence backing up Mr. Trump's claim.
Other Hill Republicans have responded with similar verbal shrugs. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday that he "didn't know what the basis" of Mr. Trump's statement was.
Mr. Trump's Twitter posts, viewed with amazement outside the West Wing bubble, often create crises on the inside. That was never truer than when Mr. Trump began posting from his weekend retreat at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida shortly after sunrise on Saturday.
His groggy staff realized quickly that this was no typical Trump broadside, but an allegation with potentially far-reaching implications that threatened to derail a coming week that included the rollout of his redrafted travel ban and the unveiling of the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
It began at 6:35 a.m. with a Twitter post reading: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"
Three other posts quickly followed, capped by a 7:02 rocket that read: "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"
That led to a succession of frantic staff conference calls, including one consultation with the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, as staff members grasped the reality that the president had opened an attack on his predecessor.
Mr. Trump, advisers said, was in high spirits after he fired off the posts. But by midafternoon, after returning from golf, he appeared to realize he had gone too far, although he still believed Mr. Obama had wiretapped him, according to two people in Mr. Trump's orbit.
He sounded defiant in conversations at Mar-a-Lago with his friend Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, Mr. Ruddy said. In other conversations that afternoon, the president sounded uncertain of the procedure for obtaining a warrant for secret wiretaps on an American citizen.
Mr. Trump also canvassed some aides and associates about whether an investigator, even one outside the government, could substantiate his charge.
People close to Mr. Trump had seen the pattern before. The episode echoed repeated instances in the 2016 presidential campaign.
During the primary contests, Mr. Trump seized on a false National Enquirer article that raised a connection between the father of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Later, Mr. Trump justified it to skeptical campaign aides by saying, "Even if it isn't totally true, there's something there," according to a former campaign official.
Over the weekend, aides to Mr. Trump decided the only real solution to the presidential Twitter posts was to kick the allegations to Congress. On Sunday, Mr. Spicer issued a statement saying that the matter was effectively closed and that the president would not address it again until the intelligence committees had released their findings – which could be many months away.
But that has not quieted the uproar. Mr. Comey was incensed by Mr. Trump's accusation because it implied that the F.B.I. had broken the law, and he pressed the Justice Department, unsuccessfully, to deny it.
On Tuesday, even as Mr. Spicer was telling reporters that the matter was above his pay grade, he said the president had "absolutely" no intention of taking back his accusations.
Mr. Trump has not spoken to Mr. Comey about the matter, Mr. Spicer said, offering a muted response when asked if the F.B.I. director retained the president's confidence. "I have no reason to believe he doesn't," Mr. Spicer said, adding that Mr. Trump "has not suggested that to me."
Mr. Spicer bristled when pressed by a reporter to weigh in on the veracity of the president's wiretapping allegation.
"I get that that's a cute question to ask," he said. "I think we've tried to play this game before. I'm not here to speak for myself. I'm here to speak for the president of the United States and our government."
[Source: By Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, Washington, 07Mar17]
Privacy and counterintelligence
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