During his news conference on Monday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer referred to “numerous reports from a variety of outlets” in an effort to build a case that President Trump’s tweetstorm accusing President Obama of wiretapping him before the election wasn’t a total fabrication.
Spicer also tried to spin Trump’s tweets — one of which plainly said “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phone in October, just prior to Election!” — as referring to “wiretapping” figuratively, not literally.
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
“If you look at the president’s tweet, he said wiretapping in quotes,” Spicer said, referring to a previous Trump tweet that said, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
“There’s been substantial discussion in several reports — Bret Baier from Fox [News] on March 3rd talked about evidence of wiretapping,” Spicer said. “There’s been reports from the New York Times and BBC and other outlets about other acts of surveillance that have occurred.”
“There’s been numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seem to indicate there have been different types of surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election,” he added.
Reporters grilled Spicer on this topic at several points during the news conference. Later, he said, “from a White House perspective, there’s no question that there had been an abundance of reports regarding surveillance and other activity that occurred during the 2016 election. And again, later: “I think there’s a preponderance of reports that come out about surveillance and actions that occurred during the 2016 election.”
Spicer acknowledged that Trump “doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally,” but added “there is no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election.”
“That is a widely reported activity that occurred back then,” Spicer continued. “The president used the word ‘wiretap’ in quotes to mean broadly, surveillance and other activities during that. And it’s interesting how many news outlets reported that this activity was taking place during the 2016 election cycle and are now wondering where the proof is.”
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 13, 2017
Trump framed his accusation as a fact when he first made it on the morning of March 4, but in a tweet posted the next day, Spicer subtly tried to walk back Trump’s claim back by framing it as based on media reports.
(1/4) Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling.
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) March 5, 2017
In a subsequent fact-check, the Washington Post cited White House sources who said that the reports in question were published by Breitbart, the BBC, Heat Street, the New York Times, and Fox News. But none of them support the accusation that President Obama had anything to do with wiretapping Trump Tower.
“Only one article, with British roots [the Heat Street piece, which was written by a British journalist], reported that a FISA court order was granted in October to examine possible activity between two Russian banks and a computer server in the Trump Tower,” the Post reported. “This claim has not been confirmed by U.S. news organizations. Moreover, no article says that Obama requested the order or that it resulted in the tapping of Trump’s phone lines.”
The Post ultimately gave Trump’s wiretapping allegation “Four Pinocchios,” noting that “[e]ven if these media reports are accepted as accurate, neither back up Trump’s claims that Obama ordered the tapping of his phone calls. Moreover, they also do not back up the administration’s revised claim of politically motivated investigations.”
Both an Obama spokesperson and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have said on the record that there’s nothing to Trump’s claim. FBI Director James Comey reportedly asked the Justice Department to publicly deny Trump’s accusation— something the Jeff Sessions-led DOJ has so far refused to do.
In short, there weren’t “numerous reports from a variety of outlets” about Obama-directed wiretaps at Trump Tower.
Then again, Trump’s tweetstorm put staffers like Spicer in a tough spot. As the New York Times reported last week, Spicer and other Trump aides were grappling with “what amounts to a strategic political retreat — trying to publicly validate Mr. Trump’s suspicions without overtly endorsing a claim some of them believe might have been generated by Breitbart News and other far-right outlets.”