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Did Donald Trump invent claim that Barack Obama tapped his phone?

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll March 6, 2017

It is well established that U.S. intelligence agencies have been investigating the connections between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Trump’s associates and the Russian government.

But in a series of early morning tweets March 4, Trump claimed that President Barack Obama ordered telephone surveillance on him during the election.

Is there any reason to believe Trump?

So far, we can’t find any.

What the Trump administration is saying

It’s possible the Trump White House is privy to investigative activities that aren’t in the public record. But given recent comments from White House spokespeople, it appears more likely that Trump took several media reports about legitimate intelligence investigations into his associates’ possible Russia ties and wove them into a new, unsubstantiated theory that Obama himself did something illegal.

The White House sent us articles from the BBC, HeatStreet, the New York Times, the National Review and a transcript from Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier.

Many news outlets have also theorized Trump’s remark was inspired by a March 3 post on Breitbart, the far-right website formerly run by White House adviser Steve Bannon.

To be clear, no article makes the specific allegation made by Trump on Twitter.

The Breitbart article relied on a variety of media reports, including a March 2 segment of Mark Levin’s conservative radio show, during which Levin said Obama and his administration "were using the instrumentalities of the federal government, intelligence activities, to surveille members of the Trump campaign."

Levin has said he pieced together his conclusion from other media reports.

"What did Barack Obama know? He knew everything I just read you apart from one or two articles. You wanna know how I know? It’s in the newspapers!" Levin said March 5. "It’s right there! So Barack Obama not only knew this, but he gets a daily intelligence briefing.

However, despite what Levin says, no source alleges Obama personally ordered phone wiretaps or any other form of surveillance. The closest some get is alluding to possible FBI requests for a warrant to monitor Trump associates amid their investigation into improper Russia-related activity.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted March 5 that the White House was requesting Congress to look into whether the Obama administration abused their powers without backing up Trump’s assertions that Obama personally ordered Trump Tower surveillance.

"Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling," Spicer said. "President 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."

Another spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, would not say Trump’s comments were accurate, instead saying "if this happened" or "if this is accurate" and naming media reports in a March 5 interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz.

What Obama, others are saying

The New York Times and Washington Post are reporting — based on anonymous sources — that FBI Director James Comey asked the Justice Department to publicly refute Trump’s tweets because they wrongly imply the FBI broke the law.

Additionally, an Obama spokesman has categorically denied that the Obama White House ordered any wiretapping.

"Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false," spokesman Kevin Lewis said.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama, also denied that there was any FISA court-authorized national security wiretap of Trump or his campaign during the election, in a March 5 Meet the Press interview on NBC.

"I will say that 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. "I can't speak for other title 3-authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity."

Obama officials and others, including the New York Times, have also said that it would be illegal for Obama to order a wiretap on Trump.

"There are two lawful ways that allow government officials to target people in the United States for surveillance and to collect the contents of their phone calls and emails: criminal wiretaps, called ‘Title III’ warrants, and national security wiretaps, called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, orders," the New York Times wrote. "Both types of wiretapping are ordered by federal judges, after applications from the Justice Department."

What Republican lawmakers are saying

Several Republican lawmakers also said they were unaware of any evidence that Obama ordered surveillance on Trump.

"I think the term wiretap is thrown around very loosely and by a lot of people. So we have to understand exactly what they're talking about," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on NBC’s Meet the Press March 5. "Suffice it to say, I don't have any basis — I've never heard that allegation made before by anybody. I've never seen anything about that anywhere before. But again, the president put that out there and now the White House will have to answer to exactly what he was referring to."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said March 5 on Fox News Sunday that he’s "seen no evidence of the allegations we've seen in the media, Chris. Whether that's a potential FISA court application or denial of that application, or a resubmission of an application or surveillance for that matter."

Trump critic Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote in a March 4 statement that the onus is on Trump to provide evidence supporting his tweets.

"The president today made some very serious allegations, and the informed citizens that a republic requires deserve more information," Sasse said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Sen. Tom Cotton's state. He represents Arkansas.

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Did Donald Trump invent claim that Barack Obama tapped his phone?