The House intelligence committee will investigate President Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama ordered his phones tapped during the closing days of last year’s presidential election campaign, the committee’s chairman announced Tuesday.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said the claim would be part of the committee’s first open hearing on Russian meddling in the U.S. election, which is now set for March 20. The witness list for that hearing, Nunes said, includes the heads, or former heads, of most of the major American intelligence agencies and may grow.
Nunes acknowledged that he had seen no evidence to back Trump’s claim of wiretapping. But he said the allegation is “quite serious” and in need of investigation.
“I haven’t talked to the president about it,” Nunes said. “They have asked us to look into it, but we were going to look into it anyway.”
Nunes, who played a key role in the Trump transition, suggesting, for example, that Trump pick retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis as his secretary of defense, declined to criticize the president for using Twitter to make so serious a claim. “He’s the president of United States, he can do what he likes. It’s not up to me to give him advice,” Nunes said.
The decision by the House intelligence committee to probe the allegation was a bipartisan one, said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top ranking Democrat on the committee. At a separate news conference, he welcomed the chance to investigate the president’s accusation against his predecessor.
“The president has said this is a scandal that is worse than Watergate, that his predecessor engaged in an illegal wiretap of his campaign. That is one potential scandal,” Schiff said.
But what he called “the alternative” result would also be scandalous if it is determined that Trump made the accusation with no evidence.
“We should be able to determine in fairly short order whether these accusations are true or false,” he said.
Beyond that, he agreed with Nunes that the House investigation is proceeding in a bipartisan manner.
“Can the House intel committee do a credible investigation of the whole range of Russian allegations?” he asked. “We don’t know yet, but it is very much in the national interest that we do so.”
Nunes had indicated previously that he believes a leak about a meeting between Trump’s designated national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak represented a major breach of classified intelligence information that deserved investigation. A document released last week outlining the committee’s goals for its investigation of Russian election meddling included determining the source of that leak and several others that have cast the Trump administration in a poor light.
But Nunes denied that the White House had shown more interest in his committee probing Trump’s allegation against Obama than the Senate intelligence committee, which has begun a similar investigation into Russian meddling. He said he didn’t see any signs of “investigation shopping” in the matter.
“As you all know, the president is a neophyte at politics,” Nunes said. “He’s been doing this a little over a year . . . Sometimes he doesn’t have 27 lawyers and staff looking at what he does, which is at times refreshing and at times leads to press conferences like this.”
He then went on to note that Trump’s multiple tweets on the alleged wiretaps were “a valuable question, if indeed it was a question.”
The witness list for the March 20 hearing, Nunes said, includes FBI director James Comey; Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency; John Brennan, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama; James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, and Sally Yates, who as acting attorney general told the White House Jan. 23 that Flynn had been overheard talking to Kislyak on Dec. 29, the same day Obama announced sanctions against Russia for its election meddling. Trump later fired Yates when she refused to defend in court his ill-starred travel ban executive order.
According to news reports, Yates warned the White House on Jan. 23 that routine monitoring of Kislyak’s communications showed that Flynn had given a misleading account to Vice President Mike Pence of what he’d said in his call with the Russian ambassador.
Trump held on to that information until Feb. 13, when he fired Flynn just hours after The Washington Post reported Yates’ alert to the White House.
The sequence of events raises questions about whether the Obama administration had sought a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor communications, Nunes said.
“Is it possible that President Obama knew about General Flynn?” Nunes asked. “We don’t know the answer to that question. Is it possible that President Obama was directing his people, his Department of Justice, to go into the FISA court, to seek a warrant? I don’t know.”