The White House has sown further perplexity about Donald Trump’s allegations of wiretapping against his antecedent, Barack Obama.
At a briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer initially said “we need to find out” if the president is the subject of an examination, then accordingly sought to clarify that there is “no reason” to believe he is.
Reports emerged on the Heat Street website in November, and the BBC in January, that mystery court orders were issued as part of a justice department inquiry into Russian efforts to intervene in the election on Trump’s behalf.
Inquired as to whether the president is the objective of a counterintelligence examination, Spicer answered: “I think that’s what we need to find out. There was considerable concern last cycle when a reporter was the target of one. But part of the reason we have asked the House and Senate to look into this is because of that.”
The reporter that Spicer referred to is probably Fox News’s James Rosen, who was explored by the justice department in 2013 with court order authorisation. Rosen’s messages were scanned but he has said he was not wiretapped.
Trump’s administration has been dogged by reports of contacts between his partners and Moscow. His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after giving a misleading account of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US.
Spicer insisted the suspicions are baseless. “It was interesting if you look at last week all of a sudden these stories that keep coming out about the president and his links to Russia,” he said. “It has continued to be the same old, same old, played over and over again. The president has made clear he has no interests in Russia and yet a lot of these stories that come out with respect to that are frankly fake.”
But a journalist at the briefing refused to let him pursue this tangent, coming back to the initial question: “He doesn’t know whether he is the target of a programme?”
Spicer replied: “I think that’s one of the issues that we have asked the House and Senate to look into.”
Afresh the press secretary pivoted to a denial of any connections between Trump and Russia. “All of the people that have been briefed on this situation have come to the same conclusion,” he said. “It’s a recycled story over and over and over again.”
The journalist tried again: “Are you saying that there’s a possibility he is the target of a counterintelligence probe involving Russia, because you just connected those two?”
Spicer stated: “I don’t – no, no, I think what I’m saying is there is a difference between that narrative and then the narrative that has been perpetuated over and over again. The concern the president has, and why he’s asked the Senate and House intelligence committees to look into this, is to get to the bottom of what may or may not have occurred during the 2016 election.”
The question and answer session moved on to various subjects, including an mistaken tweet that Trump issued about prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay. In any case, just as the briefing was about to wind up, Spicer appeared to look down at the lectern, potentially at a message.
“I just want to be really clear on one point which is there is no reason that we have to think that the president is the target of any investigation whatsoever,” he said. “There is no reason to believe that he is the target of any investigation. I think that’s a very important point to make.”
“The one question dealt with whether or not – the tweet dealt with wiretaps during the thing; the other is an investigation. They are two separate issues and there is no reason to believe there is any type of investigation with respect to the Department of Justice.”
Trump blamed Obama of wiretapping during a series of tweets fired off early on Saturday morning. On Sunday, Obama’s director of national intelligence denied that there had been any wiretapping of Trump and indicated there had not been a secret court order, though not conclusively.
Earlier in Wednesday’s briefing, Spicer additionally condemned the publication of nearly 9,000 pages of CIA files by WikiLeaks, however he declined to confirm their authenticity. “This is the kind of disclosure that undermines our security, our country and our wellbeing,” he said. “This alleged leak should concern every single American.”
Trump praised the anti-secrecy site during last year’s election, proclaiming “I love WikiLeaks” as it continued to dump emails from Hillary Clinton campaign’s manager. But Spicer said there was a “massive, massive difference” between an individual Gmail account and classified information that threatens national security.
He added: “Anybody who leaks classified information will be held to the highest degree of law.”