WASHINGTON — In a striking repudiation, Republicans on Wednesday threatened subpoenas and vented openly about the lack of evidence behind President Trump’s tweet that President Obama had wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, told reporters on Capitol Hill that “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower” and that Trump, if taken literally, is simply “wrong.”
Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, said he had provided no information to Trump that might have formed the basis for the president’s claim.
And two Republican senators threatened to block Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general until they get clarity from the FBI about the accuracy of the president’s assertions. One of them vowed to issue subpoenas, if needed.
But Trump appeared defiant. In a Fox News interview, he hinted at a broader meaning to his Twitter messages and suggested that his online assertions would eventually be vindicated, saying that “wiretap covers a lot of different things.”
Trump added, “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
It is unclear if Republicans will accept an effort by Trump and his aides to redefine what he meant. Nunes told reporters Wednesday that lawmakers will have to confront that issue as hearings of the intelligence committee open Monday.
In one of the most significant signs of pressure from within Trump’s own party, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would block the nomination of Rod J. Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general unless the FBI answered his questions.
Rosenstein had been expected to win Senate confirmation easily. The Judiciary Committee has primary oversight of the FBI.
A Republican colleague, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined Grassley in the threat.
“We’ll hold up the deputy attorney general’s nomination until Congress is provided with information to finally clear the air as to whether or not there was ever a warrant issued against the Trump campaign,” Graham said on NBC’s “Today” program.
A delay on Rosenstein’s appointment would create a number of problems for the Justice Department. In particular, he was expected to oversee any department investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election after Sessions recused himself because he was an adviser to the Trump presidential campaign.
Previous presidents have faced similar uprisings within their own parties: Democratic lawmakers initially denounced President Bill Clinton’s behavior with an intern that led to his impeachment in the House, and Republican frustration with the Iraq War, as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings fell, hampered Bush’s second-term agenda.
But rarely does a president clash so forcefully with his own party so early in his first year. Trump already faces a difficult dynamic on the Hill as he struggles to push through a major overhaul of the nation’s health care system that is already dividing the Republican-controlled Congress.
To overcome that intraparty opposition — not to mention the hostility to his health care plan from Democrats — Trump will need to woo the very Republicans who are increasingly growing weary of defending his online assertions.
In the days since Trump’s Twitter post on March 4, the White House has offered a series of shifting responses, explanations, and clarifications, some of which have been in conflict with each other.
Democrats have been particularly aggressive in assailing the president and his staff. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said Wednesday that if no evidence emerged to substantiate his claim, Trump should “explain himself.”
“You can’t level an accusation of that type without retracting it or explaining just why it was done,” he said.
Nunes and Schiff said that FBI Director James B. Comey would testify Monday at the committee’s first public hearing on its Russian interference investigation. Comey could presumably resolve the question about the wiretap.
Schiff also challenged the statements of Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, who had said that while he was not aware of any investigation targeting Trump, the president spoke accurately when he said he had been wiretapped by Obama.
“Those two things cannot both be true unless he is suggesting that the FBI was engaged in a rogue operation unsupervised by a court to wiretap Trump Tower,” Schiff said. “There is absolutely no evidence of that and no suggestion of any evidence of that.”
As part of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, agents are looking at whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government.