WASHINGTON — FBI director James Comey asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Donald Trump's assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Trump's phones, senior U.S. officials said Sunday. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is false and must be corrected, they said, but the department has not released any such statement.
Comey, who made the request Saturday after Trump leveled his allegation on Twitter, has been working to get the Justice Department to knock down the claim because it falsely insinuates that the FBI broke the law, said the officials, who asked not to be named, according to the New York Times.
A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment. Sarah Isgur Flores, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, also declined to comment.
A statement by the Justice Department or Comey refuting Trump's allegations would be a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation's top law enforcement officials in the position of questioning the truthfulness of the government's top leader. The situation underscores the high stakes of what the president and his aides have set out by accusing the former president of a conspiracy to undermine Trump's administration.
The White House showed no indication that it would back down from Trump's claims. On Sunday, the president demanded a congressional inquiry into whether Obama had abused the power of federal law enforcement agencies before the 2016 presidential election. In a statement from his spokesman, Trump called "reports" about the wiretapping "very troubling" and said that Congress should examine them as part of its investigations into Russia's meddling in the election.
Along with concerns about the potential attacks on the bureau's credibility, senior FBI officials are said to be worried that the notion of a court-approved wiretap will raise the public's expectations that federal authorities have significant evidence implicating the Trump campaign in colluding with Russia's efforts to disrupt the presidential election.
One problem Comey has faced is that there are few senior politically appointed officials at the Justice Department who can make the decision to release a statement, the officials said. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself Thursday from all matters related to the federal investigation into connections among Trump, his associates and Russia.
Comey's behind-the-scenes maneuvering is certain to invite contrasts to his actions last year, when he spoke publicly about the Hillary Clinton email case and disregarded Justice Department entreaties not to.
In his demand for a congressional inquiry, the president, through press secretary Sean Spicer, issued a statement Sunday that said, "President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016."
A spokesman for Obama and his former aides have called the accusation by Trump completely false, saying that Obama never ordered any wiretapping of a U.S. citizen.
"A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice," Kevin Lewis, Obama's spokesman, said in a statement Saturday.
Trump's demand for a congressional investigation appears to be based, at least in part, on unproven claims by Breitbart News and conservative talk radio hosts that secret warrants were issued authorizing the tapping of the phones of Trump and his aides at Trump Tower in New York.
In a series of Twitter messages Saturday, the president seemed to be convinced that those claims were true. In one post, Trump said, "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!"
On Sunday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, said the president was determined to find out what had really happened, calling it potentially the "greatest abuse of power" the country has ever seen.
"Look, I think he's going off of information that he's seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential," Sanders said on ABC's This Week program. "And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place."
Trump's demands for a congressional investigation were initially met with skepticism by lawmakers, including Republicans. Appearing on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he was "not sure what it is that he is talking about."
"I'm not sure what the genesis of that statement was," Rubio said.
Pressed to elaborate on NBC's Meet the Press, Rubio said, "I'm not going to be a part of a witch hunt, but I'm also not going to be a part of a coverup."
Also Sunday, James Clapper, the longtime director of national intelligence under Obama, said unequivocally that Trump's home and office were not wiretapped before the presidential election last year.
Clapper, who was director for more than six years before he left in January, also said he knew of no evidence that members of Trump's campaign had colluded with Russia during the election campaign and that no suggestion that they had was made in a January report on the subject.
"We did not include anything in our report that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians," he said on Meet the Press. "There was no evidence of that included in our report. We had no evidence of such collusion."
Clapper said, however, that he still agrees with that report's conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin had developed a "clear preference" for Trump and that the release of Democratic operatives' emails stolen by Russian computer hackers was part of the effort to support the Republican candidate.