President Trump took aim Wednesday at Susan E. Rice, a national security adviser under President Obama, saying he thinks she committed a crime by using U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on Trump campaign officials.
Mr. Trump said the actions by Ms. Rice, who requested that the National Security Agency “unmask” the identities of Mr. Trump’s associates and perhaps Mr. Trump himself when they were swept up in surveillance efforts against Russian officials, was “one of the big stories of our time.”
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”
The newspaper pressed Mr. Trump on whether he thought Ms. Rice broke the law.
“Do I think? Yes, I think,” he responded.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon also accused Ms. Rice of politicizing Mr. Obama’s National Security Council while explaining his removal Wednesday from the NSC’s principals committee.
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Mr. Bannon said in a statement. “I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized.”
As national security adviser, Ms. Rice had the authority to request unmasking of U.S. citizens picked up in surveillance operations of foreigners, provided there was a legitimate concern for national security or the safety of the citizen.
Without good reason, unmasking could be a violation of federal privacy protections and an abuse of power. Leaking the identity subsequently would be a crime.
The unmasking of Mr. Trump’s associates in intelligence material dated back to almost a year before the election, according to reports.
Ms. Rice said the suggestion that she unmasked members of the Trump campaign or transition team for political purposes was “absolutely false,” and she described the activities as routine.
In a March 22 interview with PBS, Ms. Rice claimed complete ignorance about any unmasking of Mr. Trump’s associates, as was first revealed by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“I know nothing about this,” she said at the time. “I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today. … So today, I really don’t know to what Chairman Nunes was referring. But he said that whatever he was referring to was a legal, lawful surveillance and that it was potentially incidental collection on American citizens.”
Several Republican lawmakers have called for Ms. Rice to testify under oath about the surveillance.
Democrats have accused Mr. Trump and his allies of using Ms. Rice as a diversion from ongoing congressional and law enforcement investigations into Russian meddling in the election and claims the Trump campaign was complicit.
The president’s critics continued to insist that Ms. Rice’s handling of surveillance, which took place in proximity to the Oval Office, did not buttress Mr. Trump’s claims several weeks ago that Mr. Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the campaign.
“I remain convinced, after seeing these materials, after listening to agency heads and other witnesses, there is still no truth, no proof, no evidence whatsoever to support the president’s accusations against his predecessor,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said on MSNBC.
Tommy Vietor, a former NSC spokesman under Mr. Obama, fired off a series of Twitter posts blasting Mr. Trump for impugning Ms. Rice.
“If Trump says @AmbassadorRice committed a crime, that means he believes officials at NSA/FBI did too since they make unmasking determination,” he tweeted. “Trump accused @AmbassadorRice of committing crime to defend something stupid he tweeted. Think about that. Literally acting like a dictator.”
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill kept the focus on Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia and alleged conspiracies.
House Democrats introduced a resolution that the White House not alter any Russian “sanctions, treaties, military aid or diplomatic relations” until the FBI concludes its investigation.
“Cheaters should never prosper,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “Until investigations are completed and the American people know the full facts of the attack upon our democracy, the Trump White House should not be changing our nation’s policies to benefit Vladimir Putin and his government.”
The resolution isn’t expected to make to the House floor, much less pass, in the Republican-run Congress.
Mr. Swalwell dedicated a page on his official congressional website last month to a graphic that mapped purported Trump-Kremlin ties.
He also offered another resolution calling for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the matter, which has become a rallying cry for Democrats.
⦁ Dave Boyer and Dan Boylan contributed to this report.