By Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The US Justice Department said Monday it had asked for more time to respond to a request from lawmakers for evidence about President Donald Trump’s accusation that then-President Barack Obama heard him during the election campaign. of 2016.
Earlier this month, without offering evidence, the Republican president accused his Democratic predecessor of wiretapping, a charge that Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said was “simply untrue.”
In response, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting evidence of the indictment before Monday.
A spokeswoman for the department said she needed more time “to review the request in accordance with the legal authorities in force and determine if there is any document that responds.”
The committee responded in a statement that it wanted an answer before the hearing scheduled for March 20, suggesting that it would use a subpoena if that did not happen.
“If the committee does not receive a response by then, the committee will request this information during the March 20 hearing and may resort to a mandatory process if our questions remain unanswered,” a spokesperson said.
The Department of Justice is not required to respond to the representatives’ request for evidence or to meet their deadline.
Trump declined to comment on Monday when asked by reporters about the wiretapping issue.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that Trump’s original statement, which he posted on Twitter, referred to other types of surveillance besides wiretapping.
“The president was very clear in his tweet that it was wiretapping, encompassing a whole host of surveillance options. The House and Senate intelligence committees will now look at that and provide a report,” he said.
In fact, Trump only addressed the wiretapping in his tweet, which read: “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very holy election process. This is Nixon / Watergate. Bad (or sick! )! “
Under US law, presidents cannot direct wiretapping. Instead, the federal government can ask a court to authorize the action, but it must provide justification.
Republicans have distanced themselves from the president on the issue. Republican Sen. John McCain on Sunday asked Trump to provide evidence of his accusation or to recant.
Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, has said he plans to question FBI Director James Comey on Trump’s wiretapping charge.
Comey has asked the Justice Department to deny the accusation, according to law enforcement sources.
The issue may also come up at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday by a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on methods used by Russia and other authoritarian governments “to undermine democracies around the world.”
The chair of the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Republican Lindsey Graham, and senior Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, wrote to Comey and Acting Attorney General Dana Boente last Wednesday asking for “any request for a warrant and court order, drawn up as necessary to protect intelligence sources. ” and methods that may be compromised by disclosure, and to protect any ongoing investigation, related to the wiretapping of President Trump, the Trump Campaign or Trump Tower. “