ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Justice Department has remained silent on the president's unsupported allegation that his predecessor ordered the FBI to wiretap Trump Tower. A spokesman for President Obama along with the former director of national intelligence have denied that claim. The silence from the Department of Justice is a problem for FBI Director James Comey, who believes the allegation has hurt the integrity of his agency.
And with us to talk about this controversy is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: First of all, does any American president have the power to order surveillance of an American citizen?
JOHNSON: No. Any such surveillance requires signoff from the FBI, senior officials at the Justice Department and then a judge. A judge needs to be convinced there's probable cause, a crime has been committed or, in the case of some kind of foreign intelligence probe, that there's some link to a foreign power, espionage or terrorism.
In this day and age, Robert, it also requires the help of a telecom company or carrier. So whatever conspiracy that tweet from President Trump was referring to would have involved an awful lot of people. And as you said, it was denied by both President Obama and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence.
SIEGEL: This morning, a spokeswoman for President Trump said that Trump doesn't believe Comey. What does that mean for the White House and the Department of Justice and Comey?
JOHNSON: Well, this is a huge slap in the face to both the FBI and to the Justice Department's National Security Division, which prosecutes terrorists and spies and springs into action when very bad things happen in this country and around the world. Press Secretary Sean Spicer says the White House wants Congress to investigate this. And the FBI director felt so strongly, he asked the Justice Department to issue some kind of statement defending the FBI this weekend, but DOJ refused to say anything. And that's exposed kind of a big rift in the early weeks of the Trump administration.
SIEGEL: Wouldn't you say that this level of public infighting is pretty unusual?
JOHNSON: Well, unusual for me. I've been on this beat 10 years. But I called former DOJ Inspector General Michael Bromwich. He told me he's never seen anything like this. He says the Justice Department has been drawn into a big mess, and it's hard to see how the department escapes without further involvement. Remember; already last week in just his third week on the job, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from any investigations of the Trump campaign and Russia under calls for his resignation.
SIEGEL: Attorney General Sessions had promised to clarify his testimony by this afternoon about whether he'd had contact with Russian officials during the campaign - his testimony at his confirmation hearing. What do we know about that?
JOHNSON: Yeah, Sessions has been under fire for giving misleading testimony during his confirmation hearing, failing to mention two contacts he had in 2016 with the Russian ambassador. Jeff Sessions has now said his answers were technically correct because the questions didn't ask about them. He said he didn't recall other contacts with other people from Russia. And Robert, it's just a short letter - three pages - doesn't give much ground at all.
SIEGEL: So what's next assuming that you can see a little bit into the future here, Carrie?
JOHNSON: Well, based on the letters I've been getting from members of Congress and calls for investigations and counter-investigations, we expect a big focus on the independence of the Justice Department. Democrats are demanding more information from the White House about contacts between the White House and the top echelons of the Justice Department. There is of course supposed to be a big firewall there to protect law enforcement operations. Democrats say they already fear that firewall has been breached.
And Robert, tomorrow, Trump's nominee to be the second in command at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, gets a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. We expect a lot of questions to him about whether he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Trump ties to Russia - alleged Trump ties - to try to maintain the independence of that investigation moving forward.
SIEGEL: And although Rosenstein is being named number two at Justice, given the recusal of Jeff Sessions, presumably he'd be the highest-ranking Justice Department official overseeing the investigation of any possible connection with Russians.
JOHNSON: Yeah, that just raises the stakes. And already Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal, two key Democrats in the Senate, have promised to, quote, "use every tool" they can to block his confirmation if he refuses to appoint an independent prosecutor.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.