Former Obama spokesman: Trump 'working very hard' to distract from 'growing scandal'

Josh Earnest was press secretary for President Obama.

March 5, 2017, 2:27 PM

— -- Former White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Trump's claim that President Obama wiretapped phones at Trump Tower is an attempt to divert attention from questions over contacts between Trump associates and Russia.

"President Trump is working very hard to try to distract the American public and the news media from the growing scandal about why his administration and why he himself has, at best, not been forthcoming about their talks and their ties with Russia," Earnest, who was Obama's press secretary, told ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz.

"There is one page in the Trump White House crisis-management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal, and the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet," Earnest said on "This Week" on Sunday.

Trump made the claim about a wiretap in a series of tweets Saturday morning.

Earnest said, "This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of an American citizen."

For the FBI to be able to place a wiretap on an American citizen, "It would require FBI investigators, officials at the Department of Justice, going to a federal judge and making a case and demonstrating probable cause to use that authority."

When pressed by Raddatz on whether he could deny that the Justice Department under Obama sought to wiretap the Trump campaign, Earnest responded, "Here's the simple answer to that question, Martha: I don't know."

"Even when I was in government, I was not in a position of being regularly briefed on an FBI counterintelligence investigation. No one at the White House, including the president of the United States, should be in a position in which they are trying to influence or dictate how that investigation is being conducted," Earnest said.

He added, "The president was not giving marching orders to the FBI about how to conduct their investigations."

Asked by Raddatz about a story last week in The New York Times saying the Obama administration scrambled to preserve intelligence on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election, Earnest said he didn't speak to the journalist who penned the story.

"What I can tell you is what the White House did ... order the intelligence community to conduct this review" of alleged Russian hacking.

"It was important for people to understand exactly what Russia did to interfere in this election, and it was important for the president-elect's team to understand what they were going to confront in office," said Earnest.

When Raddatz asked if he is "concerned the current administration is trying to quash the investigation or even destroy evidence," he said Trump is trying to "distract" attention from his associates' conversations with or ties to Russia.

"Whether it's Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, J.D. Gordon, Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions," Earnest said, ticking off names of current and former associates of Trump's who have allegedly talked to Russian officials or had ties to the country. "It’s almost like a Russian novel to try to keep up with all these conversations."

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