The Republican and Democratic leaders on the House intelligence committee said they have still not seen any evidence to support Donald Trump’s extraordinary – and unsubstantiated – claim that Barack Obama tapped his phones at Trump Tower.
“We don’t have any evidence that that took place,” the committee chairman, Devin Nunes, a Republican from California and a supporter of Trump’s campaign, said during a joint press conference with the panel’s top Democrat on Wednesday.
“And in fact I don’t believe – just in the last week of time, the people we’ve talked to – I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
The House intelligence panel has asked the justice department to respond to questions about whether it applied for a warrant to spy on Trump and his associates by 20 March, when the committee will hold a public hearing on its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The FBI director, James Comey, and National Security Agency director, Mike Rogers, are expected to testify at the hearing.
Both Nunes and the California representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said they were willing to compel the department to meet their request if it has not responded by the deadline.
Meanwhile, two members of the Senate judiciary committee gave different accounts of what disclosures Comey had promised them. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, told CNN that the FBI director pledged to confirm whether there was an investigation into Trump-Russia links by Wednesday afternoon, when a judiciary subcommittee holds hearings on Russian meddling in democracies around the world.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the subcommittee and who was part of the same conversation with Comey, said no such assurance was made.
Schiff said during the Capitol Hill press conference it was “irresponsible” of the president to make the allegations without providing evidence.
“I would hope if we get to March 20 and if we have the testimony that I think we all expect from the [FBI] director that there was no substance to the accusation that Barack Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower, that the president explains himself,” Schiff said. “You can’t level an accusation of that type without retracting it or explaining just why it was done.”
Nunes, who conceded that it would be helpful if the president clarified his comments, said the veracity of Trump’s statement depended on whether the president’s tweets were taken literally.
“You have to decide, as I mentioned to you last week, are you going to take the tweets literally?” Nunes said. “If you are, then clearly the president was wrong.”
Trump made the accusation against his predecessor in a series of tweets two weekends ago, and offered no evidence to substantiate the claims.
The press conference comes one day after the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Trump was “extremely confident” that the justice department would produce evidence to the House committee that vindicated the president’s accusation.
In a shift of position on Monday, Spicer said the president did not mean literally that Obama had wiretapped him, and that the president had purposefully placed the word in quotation marks in one of his tweets to broadly suggest surveillance and other activities.
“He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally,” Spicer said. “But I think there’s no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election. That is a widely reported activity that occurred back then.”
On Wednesday, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said that he had not provided the president with any reason to believe his phones had been wiretapped.
Asked by a reporter during an event in Richmond, Virginia, Sessions replied: “The answer is no.”
Sessions has recused himself from any investigations involving the president and the transition, including an inquiry into charges that Russia interfered in the US presidential election to undermine Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Sessions’ decision to remove himself from the investigation came after it was discovered that he had previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The House and Senate intelligence committees were already investigating Russia’s role in the US election when the president made the wiretapping allegations, which Obama denied through a spokesman.
The White House asked the Republican-led committees look into the president’s claim as part of their investigation, and they agreed. Nunes said he wanted to “verify” that the intelligence community was using its surveillance power “responsibly and by the law”.
During the press conference on Wednesday, Nunes hinted that it may be difficult to prove or disprove some claims they are investigating because of a conflict with the office of the director of National Intelligence. He said the office is reluctant to grant Congress access to the “proper computer technology” to review evidence about Russian interference in the election.
“It has become a little bit of a stumbling block for our investigators to actually be able to compile and cull through the information,” Nunes said.
The US intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered with the 2016 US election in order to help Trump win. For months Trump rejected the idea of Russian meddling, until eventually conceding “I think it was Russia” at a press conference in January.