Without citing evidence, Donald Trump on Saturday accused Barack Obama of a Watergate-style “wire tapping” of his offices in New York before the US presidential election, a move critics dismissed as an attempt to deflect attention from investigations of his ties to Russia.
A spokesman for Obama said the accusation was “simply false”.
The unprecedented attack by a president on his predecessor, made in a series of early morning tweets, stoked speculation that Trump’s remarks were prompted by stories circulating in rightwing media, including one that claimed Obama is attempting a “silent coup” against Trump.
The president this week endured another avalanche of revelations about his associates’ contacts with Russia. Most damagingly it emerged that his attorney general, former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, failed to tell senators about two meetings with the Russian ambassador to the US last year.
Last month the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign over conversations with the ambassador and misleading statements about them to the vice-president, Mike Pence.
Earlier this year US intelligence agencies reported that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump , who has repeatedly proven reluctant to publicly criticise President Vladimir Putin.
On Saturday, the president launched a series of tweets that began at 5.35am. In one he wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
He followed up with a string of tweets in the next half-hour that claimed Obama had defied a court rejection to tap his office, and invited a “good lawyer” to make a case against the alleged process.
The president then compared the alleged surveillance of his communications to Watergate – the scandal in which a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters led to revelation of crime and cover-up at the highest level of government and, ultimately, the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump tweeted. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, tweeted back at Trump: “No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
Later an Obama spokesman, Kevin Lewis, issued a statement that did not deny there was a wiretapping but did deny that Obama ordered one.
“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” the statement said.
“As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
No evidence was provided to substantiate the president’s claims that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, and it was not clear on what information Trump was basing his allegations.
A US official told the Guardian there was “no evidence to support that claim” of Obama ordering Trump to be wiretapped.
Just before last November’s election, however, the British former MP and novelist Louise Mensch reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) court had granted a warrant to enable the FBI to conduct surveillance of “US persons” in an investigation of possible contacts between Russian banks and the Trump Organization.
Two months later, the BBC published an article backing up Mensch’s original story about the Fisa court warrant issued in October to allow the justice department to scrutinise transfers and communications between Trump associates and Russian banks. US intelligence agencies were investigating the link, it added.
The Guardian reported in January that the Fisa court had turned down an application, asking the FBI to narrow the terms of inquiry.
The issue resurfaced this week in rightwing media, which Trump and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and former head of far-right Breitbart News, are known to follow closely.
Conservative radio host Mark Levin made claims on his Thursday night show about the alleged steps taken by the Obama administration to undermine Trump’s campaign to win the White House. Levin called the effort a “silent coup” by the Obama administration and said this, rather than Trump’s Russian ties, should be the subject of a congressional investigation.
Levin’s comments were then summarised by Breitbart News., in a report that also made reference to the Fisa warrant reported by Mensch and the BBC.
On Saturday, Robert Costa, a Washington Post reporter, tweeted: “Per an official, I’ve confirmed that several people at the White House have been circulating this Breitbart story.” On Friday night and Saturday, Fox News hosts whom Trump is known to watch also remarked on the issue, with presenter Sean Hannity tweeting: “What did OBAMA know and when did he know it??”
On Friday, Trump similarly tried to tar Democrats in Congress who had criticized him, with tweets attempting to link top Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to Moscow.
Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said Trump’s tweets were part of “the distraction playbook”.
“What took him so long? It’s like muscle memory for him,” she said.”Where’s the opening, the little place he can lodge a dart where it’s not going to be so easy to remove? It’s not so easy for the Obama White House to comment where any sort of electronic surveillance is going on.”
Democratic congressman Seth Moulton said the tweets were “right out of Donald Trump’s reality TV playbook”.
“He’s trying to distract attention from the real story here which is his campaign, his administration’s contact with Russian officials,” Moulton told MSNBC. “There’s clearly a deeper story here and we the American people need to know how high this conspiracy goes.”
Moulton, a member of the House armed services and budget committees, added: “Obviously contacts with Russian intelligence officials are monitored: that’s part of maintaining our national security.”
A surveillance operation would require a federal judge’s approval, based on evidence presented. Moulton noted that US agencies routinely monitor Russians with government links.
“If under the Obama administration they were simply monitoring contacts with Russian officials,” he said, “not trying to wiretap into the Trump campaign but simply looking at who Russian officials were talking with, and then Trump campaign officials got ensnared in that net, then it’s a total mischaracterisation to say President Obama was wiretapping Trump.”
In the past Trump peddled conspiracy theories, most famously the baseless claim that Obama was not born in the US. However, the two men spoke several times during the presidential transition, in conversations Obama called cordial, while Trump claimed that Obama likes him.
The mood has soured in recent days. Speaking on Fox News, Trump blamed his predecessor for recent protests and leaks. “I think President Obama’s behind it, because his people are certainly behind it,” he said.
Spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump also made efforts to defend Sessions over his meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He tweeted: “The first meeting Jeff Sessions had with the Russian [ambassador] was set up by the Obama Administration under education program for 100 [ambassadors].”
He added: “Just out: the same Russian ambassador that met Jeff Sessions visited the Obama White House 22 times, and 4 times last year alone.”
Ambassadors frequently visit the White House, and under Obama the White House publicly reported most visitors.
On Friday, Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, despite backing from Trump, who described the controversy as “a total witch hunt”.
The president, suffering record low approval ratings, had hoped to rebuild his reputation this week with an address to a joint session of Congress. That speech struck a more restrained tone than Trump’s usual public remarks, and the president declared “the time for trivial fights is over”.
But that political capital was quickly lost when the Sessions controversy erupted and restored over the administration a cloud of accusations about Kremlin links.
An hour after his blast at Obama, Trump returned to more trivial matters on Twitter. The former host of the reality TV show The Apprentice commented on his successor’s decision to quit.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice,” Trump wrote. “He was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show.”