It’s almost like Republicans are tired of having President Donald Trump’s evidence-free allegations laid at their feet. Almost.
Late Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, threatened to subpoena the Trump administration to produce evidence of Trump’s claim that then-President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. The White House has declined to produce this evidence publicly, offering a number of excuses, including the Constitution’s separation of powers and arguing that Trump wasn’t speaking literally when he made the claim.
The Justice Department missed Nunes’s deadline to provide evidence Monday, which drew Nunes’s subpoena threat.
“If the committee does not receive a response, the committee will ask for this information during the March 20 hearing and may resort to a compulsory process if our questions continue to go unanswered,” Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said.
Then, on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., made his own threat. Last week, Graham – who is clearly skeptical of the wiretapping claim and chairs a subcommittee looking into it – asked the Justice Department and the FBI to provide copies of any warrants or court orders related to the alleged wiretapping. Having not received anything back, Graham said Tuesday that he may push for a special committee.
“They’re about to screw up big time if they keep running to the intel committee and not answer that letter,” Graham said, according to CBS’s Alan He. He added: “If they don’t honor this request and give us an answer, then I would say that we need a joint select committee because regular order is not working.”
On Wednesday, Nunes went a step further at a news conference.
“I don’t believe — just in the last week of time, the people we’'ve talked to — I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” he said.
Referencing Trump’s original claims via Twitter, Nunes added that if you take Trump’s tweets literally, “clearly the President was wrong.”
It’s clear as day what’s going on here.
The White House’s reactions to Trump’s evidence-free claims – be it this one or the one about there being millions of illegal votes in 2016 – is to call for investigations. That has the triple benefit of putting the onus on someone else to look into it, to buy some time and hope people forget that the president is making such wild allegations, and in this case to give themselves an excuse to clam up.
The White House initially said that it wouldn’t comment on Trump’s wiretapping claim while it was being investigated, and then it said it couldn’t provide evidence because of separation of powers – another claim that strained credulity.
But that also puts Republicans like Nunes and Graham in the position of having to account for these claims – and calling on Trump and his team to put up or shut up. By pushing the administration to produce evidence – or else – they are effectively putting the ball back in the executive branch’s court. The subtext: You can’t just make these claims and then ask us to deal with the fallout.
Nunes, in particular, has faced some very tough questions from reporters, and he’s got to feel right now that he’s being hung out to dry. Graham’s angle is slightly different, in that he clearly doesn’t believe Trump’s claim is accurate and wants to prove it. “If there is no warrant, then we’ll have solved this problem: There was no wiretapping,” he said this week.
Whether this will actually give Trump any pause in the future when making such allegations is an open question. But these members want to make sure he and the people around him at least think twice before saddling them and their GOP colleagues with another evidence-free Trump claim.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix blog at The Washington Post.