The Department of Justice declined to comment on Thursday when asked about the White House’s recent claim that there was “no reason to believe” that President Donald Trump was the target of a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s influence on the US election.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday that there was “no reason to believe there is any type of investigation” targeting Trump “with respect to the Department of Justice.”
Spicer changed his answer slightly on Thursday, saying he was “not aware” of such an investigation.
But The New York Times reported that “a Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that there was no indication that anyone at the Justice Department had given the White House that assurance.”
Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores told Business Insider that “we don’t comment on internal conversations with the White House.”
“As a policy, we do not confirm or deny the existence of investigations,” Flores said. “Anything beyond that, we decline to comment.”
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, told Business Insider that the White House was “quite comfortable, based on what we know to be true, to make that kind of statement.”
“We don’t need to get the DOJ’s permission to feel comfortable saying that, and we didn’t predicate that statement on anything the DOJ had or hadn’t told us,” the official said. “The president knows what he knows. There’s a confidence there.”
The back-and-forth comes nearly one week after Trump tweeted, without evidence, that former President Barack Obama had ordered the wiretapping of phones in Trump Tower before the election – an action that if true and done legally would mean Trump was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation.
The president does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of a US citizen, but the FBI can seek a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor people in the US who it believes are acting as foreign spies. If Trump associates were to speak with anyone who was surveilled under a FISC warrant, then their communications would be picked up, too.
It has not been confirmed, however, that such a warrant was ever granted or if it targeted Trump Tower. The BBC and McClatchy have reported that the FBI sought a warrant to monitor Russian banks suspected of funneling money into the Trump campaign, not to directly monitor Trump’s associates.
FBI Director James Comey reportedly was so “incredulous” over Trump’s explosive accusation on Saturday that he asked the Justice Department to publicly rebuke Trump’s claim. The department has not done so.