Mitch McConnell: ‘We have an existing intelligence committee looking at all aspects of what may have been done last year related to the Russians or the campaign and we’ll leave it there.’ Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Mitch McConnell and Devin Nunes said they hadn’t seen evidence to support baseless allegations that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump during the election
While the White House on Tuesday stood by Donald Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama during the 2016 presidential campaign, top Republicans on Capitol Hill provided little support to bolster his explosive and unsubstantiated claim.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said he had not seen any evidence to back up a series of tweets by Trump on Saturday that accused Obama of wiretapping his phones at Trump Tower.
“We have an existing intelligence committee looking at all aspects of what may have been done last year related to the Russians or the campaign and we’ll leave it there,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.
Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, also could not offer any proof of Trump’s allegations while speaking at a separate press conference.
“At this point, we don’t have any evidence of that,” said Nunes, whose panel is investigating Russian interference in the US election.
The reaction from Republicans in Washington was the latest example of a familiar pattern: forced to defend the unfiltered words of a president who has a history of making false proclamations with significant consequences. In the six weeks since Trump took office, Republicans have struggled to make sense of claims that have ranged from his false insistence that millions of illegal votes were cast in the November election to now an unprecedented accusation against his predecessor.
Nunes chastised the media for taking Trump’s words at face value. The president had merely posed a question about being wiretapped, Nunes argued, even as reporters said Trump’s statement had been far more definitive.
“As you all know, the president is a neophyte in politics. And I think a lot of the things he says, you guys sometimes take literally,” Nunes said to the press.
“Sometimes he doesn’t have 27 lawyers and staff looking at what he does … I don’t think we should attack the president for tweeting.”
Donald Trump blames Barack Obama for leaks and protests
But just hours earlier, White House press secretary Sean Spicer doubled down on Trump’s charge against Obama when asked if the president regretted his attack on the previous administration.
“No. Absolutely not,” Spicer said, adding, “Why would he withdraw it until it’s adjudicated? It’s not that he’s walking anything back or regretting.”
But faced with an aggressive grilling from reporters during his first on-camera briefing in more than a week, Spicer was unable to offer any evidence or source of Trump’s accusation.
“That’s probably a level above my pay grade,” Spicer said, while adding: “It’s not a question of new proof or less proof or whatever.”
Spicer: providing evidence for Trump’s wiretap claims ‘above my pay grade’
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees said they expected to investigate Trump’s wiretapping claims as part of their separate, ongoing inquiries into efforts by the Russian government to influence the outcome of the US presidential election.
“We should be able to determine in short order whether this accusation is true or false,” said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
Republicans, who were focused this week on the rollout of a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, appeared uncomfortable when pressed on Trump’s latest controversial series of tweets. Trump’s comments were not simply inflammatory – they alleged, without evidence, that Obama had broken the law.
“I think that the first thing has to happen”, Senator John McCain of Arizona said, “is the president should tell the American people where he got the information that the previous president of the United States was violating the law.”
The severity of Trump’s rant was underscored by a report that James Comey, the director of the FBI, asked the Department of Justice over the weekend to reject the president’s charge.
Spicer said Trump had not discussed the matter with Comey, deeming it “a no-win situation” that would be interpreted as the White House interfering with the FBI’s independent investigation into potential links between associates of Trump and Russian operatives.
“I think the smartest, the most deliberative way to address this situation is to ask the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are already in the process of looking into this, to look into this and other leaks of classified information that are troubling to our nation’s national security,” Spicer said.
Schiff said he expected to raise the wiretapping issue with Comey at the House intelligence committee’s first public hearing pertaining to Russian activities during the 2016 US election, scheduled for 20 March, where the FBI director has been invited to testify.
Also on the list of witnesses invited before the panel are National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers, former CIA director John Brennan, former national intelligence director James Clapper, former acting attorney general Sally Yates, and two executives from the cybersecurity firm that investigated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee by the Russians.
Clapper has denied that Trump was wiretapped before the election, saying he would have been aware of such a warrant if it was granted.
Asked whether he could confirm or deny if a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Act warrant existed to engage in such wiretapping, Clapper again rejected the notion.
“I can deny it,” he said.
With additional reporting by Lauren Gambino