WASHINGTON — Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today advised the Trump administration to get ahead of the Russia issue instead of trying to “obfuscate,” stressing “it is going to be the truth that will determine what is involved here, and not tweets, but the truth.”
As additional individuals connected with the administration and Trump campaign last week admitted meeting with a Russian envoy during campaign season, including at the Republican National Convention where the party platform was changed to discourage arming Ukraine, President Trump accused the Obama administration of spying on him.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump tweeted Saturday. “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!”
“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!” he continued. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN this morning, “I’m not sure what it is he is talking about.”
“Perhaps the president has information that is not yet available to us or to the public,” he said. “And, if it’s true, obviously, we’re going to find out very quickly. And, if it isn’t, then, obviously, he’ll have to explain what he meant by it.”
Reports around the time of the election indicated that the FBI had sought and potentially received a FISA warrant to monitor individuals in the Trump campaign associated with Russia in connection with a financial investigation.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC this morning that as far as his agencies, “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.”
Asked if there was a FISA order to monitor Trump Tower, Clapper replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
“I can’t speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity,” he added.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement this morning saying “reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling.”
“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,” Spicer said. “Neither the White House nor the president will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”
Panetta told CBS this morning that Trump “is making the same mistake past presidents made when they faced scandals, that he is trying to divert attention.”
“They are trying to obfuscate. They’re trying to cover up. They are trying to somehow raise other issues,” he said. “…The best advice I could give the president and this administration is to get ahead of this, don’t get behind it. Get ahead of it. Present the facts as they know it, and commit themselves to cooperating with the investigations that are going on.”
“This issue is not going away. It is not going away. There is too much here. We have found the Russians to have tried to interfere in our election process. We have a situation now where the administration has denied contacts with the Russians. And we are finding out that that is not true, that there have been contacts with the Russians,” Panetta said. “And, lastly, the president himself has raised this issue. His whole national security team has condemned the Russians and Putin. And he still winds up defending Putin. So, you put all of that together, it may not lead you to some kind of collaboration or collusion, but it raises issues that have to be investigated.”
“That’s why you need a bipartisan, an independent, a thorough and a credible investigation.”
The U.S. government’s response to Russian activities during election season was already included in the bipartisan agreement of the scope of the investigation at the House Intelligence Committee. Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a statement this morning that his panel “will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates, and we will continue to investigate this issue if the evidence warrants it.”
Panetta said members of Congress “deserve the opportunity” to investigate before turning to a special prosecutor, as some lawmakers have called for.
He added that the events are sending “a terrible message” to allies and weaken “the United States, and it makes us vulnerable to our enemies.”
“I can tell you, based on my own conversations with people abroad, that they are very concerned about the administration, about the president. They are concerned about whether he truly is going to be committed to the kind of world leadership that we have seen the United States provide,” Panetta said.
“But every time these things happen, every time he tweets, every time these issues come up that indicate that — you know, there’s obviously something to this Russian issue, and the administration is not cooperating, when that happens, when he accuses a past president of wiretapping, without any evidence of that being the case, it makes us vulnerable.”
Former White House press secretary Josh Earnest told ABC this morning “it is false to say that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower.”
“This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of an American citizen,” Earnest said. “If the FBI decided to use their wiretapping authority in the context of the counterintelligence or criminal investigation, it would require FBI investigators, officials at the Department of Justice going to a federal judge, and making a case, and demonstrating probable cause to use that authority to conduct the investigation. That is a fact.”
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Trump “was not correct, certainly, in saying that President Obama ordered a tap on a server in Trump Tower; however, I think he’s right in that there was surveillance and that it was conducted at the behest of the attorney — of the Justice Department through the FISA court.”
“It means there were some basis to believe that somebody in Trump Tower may have been acting as an agent of the Russians, for whatever purpose, not necessarily the election, but for some purpose,” the Bush-era AG told ABC. “And the FBI keeps track of people who act as agents of foreign governments. They keep track of people who act as agents of the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis, everybody.”
“The only way to verify whether there was electronic surveillance is to disclose the warrant and to disclose the fruits of it. And that should not be done, even in a political storm as hot as this one.”