EghtesadOnline: President Donald Trump deflected blame for having angered the U.K. government by repeating an allegation he was spied on by British intelligence, and declined to back away from the unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, put him under surveillance.
“We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain, very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it,” Trump said on Friday, referring to remarks by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that Obama had bypassed U.S. law by asking the U.K. to gather intelligence on the Republican during the presidential campaign. “You shouldn’t be talking to me you, should be talking to Fox.”
According to Bloomberg, Trump stuck by his allegation, which has been refuted by the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees, that the Obama administration had him under surveillance during the 2016 presidential campaign. During a White House news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump also made an indirect reference to disclosures during the Obama administration that the U.S. monitored the German leader’s personal mobile phone.
“As far as wiretapping, I guess, by, you know, this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps” he said, turning to Merkel, who remained impassive during the exchange.
Trump’s tweeted assertions that his predecessor spied on him have been roiling Democrats and wearing on the patience of his Republican allies in Congress. Now they have spilled over into a row with the closest U.S. ally.
Kim Darroch, U.K. ambassador to the U.S., and Mark Lyall Grant, Prime Minister Theresa May’s national security advisor, separately expressed their concerns to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who cited the Fox News pundit on Thursday as he attempted to bolster Trump’s claims, and Trump national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
A senior U.K. government official said earlier Friday that the White House had admitted Spicer was wrong about the allegations, and apologized. But after Trump’s news conference, Spicer told reporters, “I don’t think we regret anything.”
A White House official said Spicer and McMaster told U.K. officials that the press secretary was simply highlighting published reports, not endorsing any specific story, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
May’s office declined to comment on whether Trump’s aides had apologized, and the White House official didn’t characterize the conversation. May’s team is keen to move on from the embarrassing row and regards the matter as closed.
“We have received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” James Slack, a spokesman for May, said Friday. He said allegations that British intelligence had aided Obama in an off-the-books espionage effort were “utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
May is hoping to strengthen the transatlantic bond with Trump as she prepares to take the U.K. out of the European Union. British and US officials have begun laying the ground for a new trade deal between the old allies, which would come into force when the U.K. exits the EU.
Napolitano, a legal pundit for Fox News who has advised Trump, said during a March 14 broadcast that three intelligence sources told the network Obama personally appealed to the British Government Communications Headquarters, known as the GCHQ, to spy on Trump. Spicer highlighted the report among a list of media accounts he rattled off to reporters during his briefing on Thursday, arguing that the stories helped validate Trump’s allegation.
After Spicer’s briefing on Thursday, the GCHQ issued a rare statement flatly dismissing the Fox pundit’s reporting.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” the agency said in the statement.
On Friday, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said on the air that “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way, full stop.”
Under the Five Eyes agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S., allies cannot use each others’ intelligence capabilities to circumvent their own laws, Slack said.
Dominic Grieve, the senior British lawmaker in charge of parliamentary oversight of U.K. state intelligence agencies, said it was “inconceivable” that Britain’s GCHQ listening station could have been asked to “wire tap.”
GCHQ’s public denial “was an unusual step by the agency, but it clearly indicates the strength of feeling about this issue, and I echo that sentiment,” Grieve said in an emailed statement.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said on Twitter Friday that “the cost of falsely blaming our closely ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated.”
Trump has shaken relations with other allies since taking office on Jan. 20, including Australia, Mexico, and Germany. May was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after his inauguration. The meeting Friday with Merkel made evident some of the differences that remain between the two leaders.
On Thursday, Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Republican and Democrat respectively on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there’s no evidence to back up Trump’s claims that the Obama administration spied on him. That echoed remarks a day before by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican. On Friday, eight-term Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said Trump should apologize to Obama for making an unproven claim, the Associated Press reported.
Spicer quoted Napolitano’s comments as part of a lengthy citation of media reports made in response to questions from reporters about the statement by Burr and Warner.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” said senators said in their statement.
Since the flurry of tweets from Trump on March 4, the White House has said that the president’s initial claims shouldn’t be taken literally. Officials have said Trump didn’t necessarily mean Obama personally ordered the surveillance; that wiretapping could refer to a broad range of surveillance efforts; and that the effort may not have specifically targeted Trump Tower in New York, which houses Trump’s business headquarters and home.
Trump has so far refused to fully detail what evidence he’s seen to support his allegation. In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump said he’d based his tweets at least partially on media reports, but could release additional information to support the claims.
A spokesman for Obama has denied that he personally ordered surveillance against Trump.
Trump’s allegations are expected to dominate a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday with Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. The Justice Department also faces a deadline that day to turn over any evidence that the Obama administration may have put Trump under surveillance.