WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's claim that his New York offices were wiretapped on orders of former President Barack Obama ignited a major political eruption, with partisan divisions on whether Congress should heed his call for an investigation.

While Ohio Republicans expressed an openness to the probe, Democrats reacted more in the line of Rep. Joyce Beatty of Jefferson Township, who charged Trump is "pushing yet another far-flung conspiracy theory."

As Trump's accusations hearkened back to the Cold War when presidents routinely ordered the FBI to install domestic national security wiretaps without a court order, Trump's new accusations intensified pressure on congressional intelligence committees to thoroughly examine potential links between Trump's political campaign and Russian officials, and how the FBI investigated those possible links.

Sen. Rob Portman said Monday he had "not seen any evidence to support these claims, and the House and Senate intelligence committees should review the matter."

A spokesman for Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, said he "supports the ongoing bipartisan investigations in the House and Senate intelligence committees into Russia. They should continue their work to examine the facts and follow the evidence where it leads. If the administration has evidence to support this wiretapping claim, they should provide it."

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said if the wiretapping occurred "it is a clear abuse of power. However, congressional committees should only convene oversight hearings if there is proof that it happened. If anyone does have proof, they should come forward with it."

By contrast, Democrats such as Beatty reacted with fury. She said "instead of investigating Trump's outlandish claim, congressional Republicans should join with congressional Democrats to get to the bottom of Trump's political, personal and financial ties to Russia."

Sen. Sherrod Brown complained that "once again questions over President Trump's ties to Russia are getting in the way of work" to improve the economy. The Ohio Democrat once again called for "an independent investigation to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in our election and ties to the Trump administration."

Under a 1978 law, today's presidents today cannot simply order a wiretap on a U.S. citizen. Instead, the attorney general must persuade a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court there is probable cause to approve a wiretap on an American believed to be involved in espionage.

"The Justice Department is the only agency that can appear before the FISA court," said Stewart Baker, a Washington attorney and former general counsel for the U.S. National Security Agency, adding that the request would have had to have come from Obama's attorney general, Loretta Lynch.

"They would have to establish these people were agents of a foreign power," Baker said. "If they are just talking indiscreetly, I'm not sure that would make them an agent of a foreign power."

But while doubting the FBI and Justice Department were engaged in a "politically motivated investigation," Baker said it would not be "comforting" to Trump "to have people who are so profoundly hostile to Trump's candidacy making those decisions."

"I think the Russians are having great fun watching this fight," Baker said.

The 1978 law resulted from revelations that every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon ordered the FBI to install national security wiretaps on American citizens without a court order.
Presidents, according to Evan Thomas, a biographer of Nixon and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, often were "pretty fast and loose" in deciding who to wiretap. Robert Kennedy in 1963 approved an FBI request to wiretap the Rev. Martin L. King Jr., and Nixon in 1969 ordered the FBI to tap the phones of four reporters and 13 members of the U.S. National Security Council to discover the source of leaks.

But the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that presidents could not order wiretaps on American citizens without a warrant. And in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and a Senate investigation of CIA and FBI abuses in the 1970s, Congress approved the law that created the FISA court.

"My guess about what happened is this is an inflation of FISA warrants that listen in on Russian calls that reached Trump people," Thomas said. "The Russians were calling Trump people. The hothead press inflates that to be Obama ordering it. It is the FBI and Justice Department getting routine warrants to listen to."

This article was originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on March 6, 2017.