Two senior White House officials suggested on Monday that President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama had tapped his telephone was not meant to be taken literally, arguing that Mr. Trump had been referring more broadly to a variety of surveillance efforts during the 2016 campaign when he made the incendiary accusation.
“He doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary.
In fact, Mr. Spicer said, when Mr. Trump charged in a Twitter post last weekend that Mr. Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” he was referring generally to surveillance activities during the 2016 race — not to an actual telephone wiretap.
“The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, ‘wiretapping,’” Mr. Spicer said, using his fingers to make a gesture suggesting quotation marks. “That spans a whole host of surveillance types of options.”
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Mr. Spicer said there have been “numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seemed to indicate that there has been different types of surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election.”
The remarks were the first time the White House sought to explain the accusation Mr. Trump made in a series of posts on Twitter saying Mr. Obama “was tapping my phones” and calling the former president a “bad (or sick) guy.”
The explanations came as the Justice Department asked the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, who had given a Monday deadline to produce proof of Mr. Trump’s claim, for more time “to determine what if any responsive documents exist.”
Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s senior adviser, said in an interview on Sunday that Mr. Obama could have employed any number of devices other than a traditional telephone wiretap, even including a microwave oven.
Ms. Conway clarified on Monday that she was not accusing the former president of snooping via a kitchen appliance, arguing that her comments had been taken out of context.
“I’m not Inspector Gadget,” she said Monday on CNN. “I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign.”
But in an interview with a columnist for The Record of Bergen County, N.J., the day before, she said Mr. Obama’s alleged spying efforts against Mr. Trump could have been far more extensive than a telephone wiretap.
“What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other,” Ms. Conway told the paper. “You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets — any number of ways.”
Surveillance can even be carried out with “microwaves that turn into cameras,” she added. “We know this is a fact of modern life.”
The unusual and shifting explanations from Mr. Spicer and Ms. Conway reflected the contortions that members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle have employed to explain the president’s explosive accusation, which he has yet to address personally. Neither Mr. Trump nor anyone at the White House has presented any evidence for the claim, instead asking Congress to investigate it as part of its inquiry into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.[...]