WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey said last night there is no evidence to support United States President Donald Trump’s allegations that the Obama administration “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year, moments after confirming the bureau is probing potential ties between Mr Trump’s associates and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Mr Comey told the House Intelligence Committee in response to a question over Mr Trump’s series of tweets earlier this month alleging that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of the phones at Mr Trump’s then-campaign headquarters at Trump Tower in New York.
Mr Comey said the lack of wiretapping evidence extended to the Department of Justice as well.
“The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components.”
Asked by the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Adam Schiff, whether Mr Obama could have unilaterally ordered a wiretap of anyone, Mr Comey responded: “No president could.”
National Security Agency (NSA) director Admiral Mike Rogers, who was also at the packed hearing, strongly rebutted the suggestion repeated by Mr Trump’s administration that the agency had asked Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency to spy on the US President.
“That would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that’s been in place for decades,” he said, referring to the intelligence network grouping of the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The combined remarks were perhaps the strongest on-record repudiation yet by senior government officials of the President’s accusation against Mr Obama.
Earlier during the hearing, Senator Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the committee, debunked Mr Trump’s claim that his predecessor listened in on his communications, but did not rule out other surveillance methods.
“We know there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
At last night’s public hearing, Mr Comey also said for the first time that the FBI is conducting a broad investigation into Moscow’s efforts to “interfere” in the presidential election.
“I have been authorised by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” he said.
“And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Mr Comey, however, cautioned that he would not be able to discuss many details of what remains a classified probe. Given the high public interest in the outcome of the inquiry, he told members of the committee that he would pursue the investigation “wherever it may lead”.
In an immediate response, the Trump administration insisted that “nothing has changed”.
“There is NO EVIDENCE of Trump-Russia collusion and there is NO EVIDENCE of a Trump-Russia scandal,” a senior administration official said in a written statement.
Senator Nunes had said that yesterday’s hearing would focus on Russia’s actions, whether campaign officials or other US citizens were improperly monitored, and who was responsible for leaks of sensitive information.
Democrat senator Mr Schiff said there was “no crime” in Mr Trump or his aides having legitimate connections with Russian interests.
But he added, “If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”
Hours before the committee commenced its hearing, Mr Trump preemptively weighed in on the proceedings, saying that it was a political attack meant to undermine his administration.
“James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS,” Mr Trump tweeted, using an acronym for President of the United States and referring to the former director of national intelligence.
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!”
He said Congress instead should be investigating leaks that have harmed his young administration.
“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” he further tweeted. “Must find leaker now!” AGENCIES