President Donald Trump’s tweet first, ask questions later approach to governance took an odd turn this weekend.
The White House asked Congress to investigate allegations, first laid out by the President on Twitter Saturday, that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election. Congressional experts who spoke with TPM said the President has no authority to direct lawmakers’ investigations, and that it is a bizarre move for the commander-in-chief to ask Congress to investigate himself.
“The investigative power of committee is a congressional tool, not a presidential tool. That the President would assume that he could essentially demand or dictate to Congress that they change the focus of an investigation is I think pretty much unprecedented,” Bruce Miroff, an expert on the U.S. presidency at the University of Albany, explained. “And it is a reminder again that, to put it bluntly, Trump doesn’t understand the separation of power system.”
“You’re seeing the limits of his authority right now,” Josh Huder of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute told TPM. “In terms of what he can tell Congress to do, he’s reached the maxed out potential for that.”
Congressional investigations often probe subjects that the executive branch isn’t particularly keen to have highlighted. The Obama administration, for example, was dogged by multiple, overlapping investigations into the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Yet in this case, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Trump is requesting that congressional intelligence committees “exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016” as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election and contacts between Russian operatives and Trump staffers. So the request attracts even more attention to a storyline that the Trump administration has repeatedly dismissed as “fake news.”
George Washington University political historian Matt Dallek noted that Trump’s wiretapping allegations, like Spicer’s statement, were issued on Twitter.
“There’s something deeply unserious about it, except for the fact that it’s coming from the President of the United States,” he told TPM. “That’s not how it works, and that’s not how the system was designed.”
Trump is “urging Congress to investigate a charge based on virtually zero evidence and a right-wing conspiracy theory that’s been floating around Breitbart News and a couple of other sites,” Dallek added.
So far, Trump and his aides have offered up only these anonymously-sourced media reports, some of them from fringe publications, as evidence for these explosive charges, with Spicer saying the White House will have no further comment until congressional “oversight is conducted.”
Though there is historically little coordination between the legislative and executive branches on such investigations, some key Republicans seem willing to pursue the President’s unsubstantiated allegations.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said that his committee will “make inquiries” into the alleged wiretapping as part of its investigation into Russia’s election interference. House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) also said he was going to “take a look at it” because “this stuff does happen,” though he acknowledged he’s yet to see any “direct” evidence.
Miroff of the University of Albany cautioned that such willingness to go along with what he called a “red herring” dangled by Trump puts GOP lawmakers at risk of looking “like tools of the Trump White House,” rather than “standing for Congress’ independent authority.”
Democrats and even some GOP lawmakers dismissed the allegations as baseless, particularly after an Obama spokesperson and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied that any Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order was ever issued to monitor Trump Tower.
Skeptics, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, also pointed out that Trump doesn’t need Congress’ assistance to check out these reports in the first place. As President, he can simply ask intelligence agencies to provide him with any national security information he wants to confirm, including any FISA warrant that may exist authorizing surveillance in his building.
Experts say that confluence of factors makes it unlikely that Congress will actively pursue Trump’s request as opposed to simply ignoring it. Lawmakers did the latter when the President called for assistance with a “major investigation” into what he claimed, without any evidence, that undocumented immigrants committed mass voter fraud during the 2016 election.
The bipartisan interest in getting to the bottom of the Russian election interference story may prod the intelligence committees to provide a definitive answer to Trump’s allegations, however.
The President’s request, Dallek said, “puts some added pressure on Congress and the intelligence agencies to come up with the most detailed and robust reports possible.”
“He’s casting a huge spotlight on it.”