James Comey, the director of the FBI, has reportedly asked the US justice department to publicly reject claims made by Donald Trump that Barack Obama ordered his phones to be tapped during the 2016 election campaign.
Comey made the request on Saturday because of his concern that the allegation was false and suggested the FBI had broken the law, according to the New York Times. Unnamed US officials confirmed Comey’s move to the Associated Press, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.
The department is yet to respond and the FBI has refused to comment on the reports about Comey’s request.
The request from Comey comes after Trump tweeted claims on Saturday, without evidence, that Obama had ordered the FBI to tap the phones at Trump Tower in New York.
On Sunday, the White House asked Congress to investigate the allegation, despite James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, saying nothing matching Trump’s claims had taken place.
“Absolutely, I can deny it,” said Clapper, who left government when Trump took office in January. An Obama spokesman also called Trump’s tweets “unequivocally false”.
Regardless, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s instruction to Congress was based on “very troubling” reports “concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election”.
Spicer did not respond to inquiries about the reports he cited. However, late last week rightwing radio and news sites, including the website recently run by the president’s chief strategist, circulated the idea that Obama had tried to undermine the Trump campaign.
Spicer said the White House wants the congressional committees to “exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016”. He said there would be no further comment until the investigations are completed, a statement that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi took offence to and likened to autocratic behaviour.
“It’s called a wrap-up smear. You make up something. Then you have the press write about it. And then you say, everybody is writing about this charge. It’s a tool of an authoritarian,” Pelosi said.
Spicer’s chief deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said she thinks Trump is “going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential”.
The FBI and Congress are already investigating Russian interference in the election, and American intelligence agencies have concluded that hackers acting on behalf of the Kremlin broke into Democratic party servers in support of Trump.
But it is highly unusual for the director of the nation’s intelligence service to challenge a sitting president in this way and – since attorney general Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation last week – Comey has reportedly struggled to find an authority able to respond to his request to the White House.
Congressional Democrats are seeking details about reports of contacts between the White House and the justice department concerning the FBI’s ongoing review of efforts by the Russian government to unlawfully influence the election.
House judiciary committee Democrats plan to send a letter to White House counsel Donald McGahn noting the contacts were inappropriate. Judiciary Democrats will also send a similar letter to Comey.
The Democrats cited reports of the White House contacting the justice department and FBI asking them to knock down reports of communications between Trump associates and Russians during the campaign. Comey has not done so, and Democrats want to know details of those communications.
AP contributed to this report.