The White House has sown further confusion about Donald Trump’s accusations of wiretapping against his predecessor, 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 investigation, then subsequently 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 secret court orders were issued as part of a justice department inquiry into Russian efforts to intervene in the election on Trump’s behalf.
Asked directly if the president is the target of a counterintelligence investigation, Spicer replied: “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 presumably Fox News’s James Rosen, who was investigated by the justice department in 2013 with court order authorisation. Rosen’s emails were scanned but he has said he was not wiretapped.
Trump’s administration has been dogged by reports of contacts between his associates 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, returning 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.”
Once more 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 said: “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 different subjects, including an erroneous tweet that Trump issued about prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay. But just as the briefing was about to wind up, Spicer appeared to look down at the lectern, possibly 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 accused 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 also condemned the publication of nearly 9,000 pages of CIA files by WikiLeaks, though 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, declaring “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.
“Anybody who leaks classified information will be held to the highest degree of law,” he added.
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