House intelligence chiefs say there's no evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump

The House Intelligence Committee has seen no evidence to support President Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama, the panel’s leaders said Wednesday, deepening a dispute with the White House over the president’s veracity.

"We don't have any evidence that that took place 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," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the committee chairman.

“I have seen no evidence that supports the claim that President Trump made,” agreed Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking member.

FBI Director James B. Comey is scheduled to testify Monday at the first congressional hearing into Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign, and Nunes and Schiff say they will ask him whether the FBI secretly conducted electronic or other surveillance of Trump. If Comey declines to answer, they say, they could subpoena the records.

Comey also is likely to face questioning about whether the FBI opened a formal investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials — a question the FBI has so far been unwilling to answer in public.

In tweets on March 4, Trump twice accused Obama of wiretapping him before his inauguration and urged Congress to investigate the claim. A spokesman for Obama described the claim as false, and no evidence has emerged to substantiate it.

The dispute over the seemingly rash tweets has become one of the most serious of the first months of Trump’s presidency, dividing him from Republicans in Congress and raising the possibility that law enforcement and intelligence officials will publicly undercut him.

The White House has not offered any evidence of wiretapping or other surveillance, but Trump did not back down. In an interview Wednesday on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Trump suggested new disclosures would be forthcoming.

“Wiretap covers a lot of different things. I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” he said, according to an excerpt released before the interview was broadcast.

The question of whether Trump and his associates were caught up in FBI surveillance is one of many under scrutiny by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Both are in the early stages of parallel investigations into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 elections.

Nunes and Schiff say they are still seeking to hire additional staff for the House investigation and negotiating with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the U.S. intelligence community, over access to the computers used to store classified information on Russia’s role in the presidential race.

While the two lawmakers agree that no evidence of FBI surveillance of Trump has been uncovered, Nunes has raised the possibility that Trump campaign communications might have been picked up in “incidental” intelligence collection aimed at Russian officials.

Monday’s hearing will be the first to examine Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking into Democratic National Committee computers and leaking thousands of emails, as well as other operations intended to discredit the election.

The committee also is looking at whether Trump and his associates had improper contacts with Russian government officials during or after the campaign.

Nunes said he was not aware of any evidence that Trump aides spoke with Russian officials other than Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., who had multiple conversations with Trump campaign aides and surrogates, including Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions was still in the Senate.

Sessions recused himself from Justice Department investigations into Russia’s role in the campaign after news reports confirmed he had met twice with Kislyak, including once in his office in September, but had failed to disclose the contacts during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Schiff, who said he had visited CIA headquarters Tuesday to examine classified documents, refused to rule out further possible contacts between Trump’s team and Russian authorities.

A U.S. intelligence report issued in January, shortly before Trump took office, assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian intelligence agencies to use cyberattacks and other means to hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump.

FBI officials have refused to discuss their investigation, and there has been no proof that they have discovered wrongdoing by any Trump associate.

Nunes conceded that one should not read Trump’s tweets about being wiretapped by Obama as literally true. But Trump may have been expressing concern that he and his associates came under government surveillance “either appropriately or inappropriately,” he said.

“We want to find that out,” he added.

Nunes said he was also concerned about leaks of classified information that have roiled the Trump administration.

Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign last month after leaks indicated he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia during several telephone conversations with Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration, and then had misled Vice President Pence about the conversations.

Officials said surveillance in that case was aimed at the Russian ambassador, not at Flynn.

The FBI is prohibited by law from intercepting telephone calls or conducting other electronic surveillance on U.S. citizens and others living in the United States, barring a court order.

Communications involving Americans inadvertently intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies are supposed to be kept confidential unless they contain evidence of a crime or involve foreign intelligence.

Seeking information about the source of possible leaks, Nunes and Schiff sent a letter to the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency on Wednesday seeking details of any U.S. individuals who were associated with the Trump and Clinton campaigns whose communications were picked up during surveillance of legitimate targets, and not kept confidential.

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidCloudLAT

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