Update: Nunes made another big statement about Trump's claim Wednesday, saying at a press conference that "clearly the president was wrong” if he meant literally that President Obama had wiretapped him. Nunes, it bears emphasizing, served on Trump's transition team.
It's almost as though Republicans are tired of having President Trump's evidence-free allegations laid at their feet. Almost.
Late Monday, a spokesman for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) threatened to subpoena the Trump administration to produce evidence of Trump's claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. The White House has declined to produce this evidence publicly, offering various excuses, including the Constitution's separation of powers and — most recently on Monday — 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, Graham said 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 morning, Graham said he might also go the subpoena route and hold up deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein's nomination. "Congress is gonna flex its muscle here, and you see that all over the place," Graham said.
Graham says they'll issue a subpoena and hold up Deputy AG Rosenstein's nom if DOJ/FBI doesn't respond to him pic.twitter.com/3l48vnS9l6
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) March 15, 2017
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 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 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 such as 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 must feel as though he's being hung out to dry. Graham's angle is slightly different, in that he clearly doesn't think 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.