Donald Trump’s relationship with Barack Obama descended to a new low on Saturday after the US president made explosive accusations that his predecessor orchestrated an illegal Watergate-style bugging operation at Trump Tower in New York.
In an unprecedented attack by a sitting president on former occupant of the White House Mr Trump called Mr Obama “sick” and suggested he should be criminally prosecuted for “wiretapping” him during the election campaign.
Mr Trump unleashed his astonishing allegations on Twitter from is Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where he was spending the weekend, but offered no proof and it was believed he may have based them on media reports.
In the series of tweets beginning at 6.26am Mr Trump:
- Accused Mr Obama of having his phones tapped.
- Claimed his predecessor stooped as low as Richard Nixon during Watergate.
- Called Mr Obama a “bad guy”.
- Suggested the former president had overseen a McCarthy-style witch hunt.
But on Saturday night Mr Obama’s closest allies hit back, saying Mr Trump’s behavior was not presidential, labeling the president a liar and calling the allegations “simply false”.
One Democrat dismissed the explosive allegations as “just the president up early doing his routine tweeting”.
In the series of six tweets sent out over 36 minutes, Mr Trump hinted at legal action.
Mr Trump said: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
Mr Trump added: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. 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.”
President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after a long scandal that began with the discovery of a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington and involved the bugging of political opponents.
A spokesman for Mr Obama denied the allegations as “simply false”.
“A cardinal rule for the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Kevin Lewis said.
“As part of that practice neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama’s former national security adviser, strongly denied the allegations.
Mr Rhodes, addressing his comments to Mr Trump, said : “No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
In response to Mr Trump’s suggestion that a lawyer could make a “great case” against Mr Obama, Mr Rhodes said: “No. They couldn’t. Only a liar could do that.”
Mr Rhodes added: “Is it still ‘presidential’ to call your dignified predecessor ‘Bad (or sick) guy!’?”
CNN reported it had been told by a former senior Obama official that Mr Trump’s allegations were “false and wrong”.
Members of Congress said Mr Trump’s accusations require investigation or explanation.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, described the allegations as serious and said the public deserved more information. He said in a statement it was possible that Mr Trump had been illegally tapped, but, if so, the president should explain what sort of tap it was and how he knew about it.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called Mr Trump’s assertion a “spectacularly reckless allegation”.
“If there is something bad or sick going on, it is the willingness of the nation’s chief executive to make the most outlandish and destructive claims without providing a scintilla of evidence to support them,” Mr Schiff said in a statement.
As the furor unfolded a spokeswoman for Mr Trump said he was busy “having meetings, making phone calls and hitting balls” at his golf course in Florida.
Mr Trump’s all-out attack on Mr Obama came five days after he accused his predecessor of being personally responsible for leaks suggesting links between Trump officials and Russia, and internal conflict in the new administration.
It marked a breach with previous assessments Mr trump had made of his relationship with Mr Obama.
Last month Mr Trump said: “We had a rough campaign, he was vicious during the campaign toward me and I was vicious to him. We said horrible things about each other. But it’s a very strange phenomenon, we get along, I don’t know if he’ll admit this but he likes me.”
The only publicly available evidence that communications at Trump Tower were monitored came from media reports.
In November Louise Mensch, the British independent journalist and former Conservative MP, reported that she had been told by counter-intelligence sources that the FBI was granted a warrant by a secret court in October to examine the activities of people in Mr Trump’s campaign.
The warrant was said to have been granted under the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Act which allows a clandestine court to authorise electronic surveillance in cases involving agents of foreign powers.
The so-called FISA warrant had reportedly been initially denied by the court in June but was granted in October after the FBI presented evidence of a server that was allegedly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank.
Later, the New York Times reported that the FBI investigation into the Trump Tower server had not led anywhere.
On Thursday night suggestions that Trump Tower was the subject of a FISA warrant were repeated by Mark Levin, a prominent US conservative radio host, who said it was evidence that Mr Obama had been running a “police state”.
The suggestions of wire tapping made on Mr Levin’s radio show were reported in a lengthy article on Breitbart News on Friday.
The Breitbart News article was reportedly circulating among White House officials that day.
On Friday Fox News asked Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, about the suggestion that a FISA warrant had been issued by a court.
He said: “None of us in Congress have been presented with evidence to the contrary.”
Under US law, in order to approve a warrant authorizing electronic surveillance of Trump Tower, a FISA court would have to have found probable cause that the target of the surveillance was an “agent of a foreign power”.
Lindsey Graham, the prominent Republican senator, said for Mr Obama himself to bug Trump tower would be illegal.
He said: “I’m very worried that our president is suggesting the former president has done something illegally. I don’t know if its true or not but if it is true, illegally, it would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
“It’s my job as a US senator to get to the bottom of this and I promise I will.”
Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman who is a member of the House intelligence committee, downplayed Mr Trump’s allegation.
He said: “Presidents don’t wiretap anyone. These are pursued by the Department of Justice in accordance with the FBI and signed off by a judge. I think this is just the president up early doing his routine tweeting.”
Tom Fuentes, former Assistant Director of the FBI, added: “The FBI is the only entity lawfully authorized to carry out these types of wiretaps. They would submit an affidavit to get the warrant. The results would be top secret.
“Numerous media organizations have suggested this warrant happened. We don’t know it’s true. All we know is President Trump has seen this media reporting and is not happy about it.”
Mr Trump’s administration has come under increasing pressure from the FBI and congressional investigations into contacts between some members of his campaign team and Russian officials.
Profile | Sergey Kislyak
Russian Ambassador to the United States
Full name: Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak
Born: 7 October 1952, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg)
Education: Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, postgraduate at the USSR Academy of Foreign Trade
Career in brief:
- 1985–1989 – First Secretary, Counselor at the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Washington, DC during President Gorbachev’s Perestroika initiative
- 1995–1998 – Director of the Department of Security Affairs and Disarmament at the Russian Foreign Ministry
- 1998–2003 – Ambassador of Russia to Belgium and Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to NATO. His specialty was arms control and he lead Russian negotiators on this topic
- 2003–2008 – Deputy Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- 2008–present – Ambassador of Russia to the United States, appointed by President Medvedev
Contact with Trump campaign
Mr Kislyak’s late-2016 conversations with incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn led to the latter’s resignation. General Flynn had failed to disclose these contacts during his confirmation hearing.
In March 2017, it emerged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had also had contact with the Russian diplomat during the presidential campaign, but failed to disclose this in his nomination hearing. Mr Sessions recused himself from overseeing investigations into Russian interference in the US election.
US intelligence agencies believe Russian-linked hackers were behind hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the campaign which led to the publication of embarrassing internal communications.
Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, resigned last month after revelations that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, before Mr Trump took office.
Jeff Sessions, Mr Trump’s attorney general, has recused himself from any investigations into links between the Trump campaign and Russia after it emerged he had himself met twice with Mr Kislyak during the campaign.
Mr Sessions then did not reveal the meetings during his confirmation hearing, leading to allegations from Democrats that he had “lied under oath”.
During his Saturday morning series of tweets attacking Mr Obama the president also defended Mr Sessions.
Mr Trump said: “The same Russian Ambassador that met Jeff Sessions visited the Obama White House 22 times, and four times last year alone.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader in the House of Representatives, accused Mr Trump of trying to deflect attention from meetings between some of his aides and Mr Kislyak. She said: “The Deflector-in-Chief is at it again.”