WASHINGTON — The White House has attempted to placate an irate Britain after suggesting that former United States President Barack Obama used London’s spy agency to conduct surveillance on President Donald Trump while he was a candidate last year.
The White House said yesterday that press secretary Sean Spicer had not accused Britain of spying on Mr Trump when he repeated a Fox News report claiming that London’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency had done so.
After GCHQ rejected the allegation as “utterly ridiculous,” the White House said it had reassured the British that “Mr Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story”. A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday that “we’ve received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated”.
The spokesman would not confirm that the White House had apologised, as the British media had reported.
“Let’s leave it that we’ve had reassurances that these allegations would not be repeated,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
Mr Spicer contacted Mr Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, on Thursday night (US local time) to try to deal with the unusual rupture between the US and its closest international ally.
The flap started when Mr Spicer, in the course of defending Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that Mr Obama ordered the future President’s phones tapped last year, read from the White House lectern comments by a Fox News commentator asserting that the British spy agency was involved.
Mr Andrew Napolitano, the commentator, said on air that Mr Obama used GCHQ to spy on Mr Trump. GCHQ denied the contention in a statement issued on Thursday.
By yesterday morning, Mr Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians demanded apologies and retractions from the American government.
Two British officials confirmed yesterday that Mr Spicer and Mr Darroch spoke, but would not confirm that the press secretary apologised. “We won’t get into private conversations,” said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mr Trump has continued to stick by his claim about Mr Obama even after it had been refuted by a host of current and former officials. Mr Obama denied it, as has the former director of national intelligence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation director also privately told other officials it is false.
After being briefed by intelligence officials, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have said they have seen no indication that Mr Trump’s claim is true.
On Thursday (US local time), the leaders of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan statement rejecting Mr Trump’s assertion that the Obama administration tapped his phones.
Mr Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s Democratic vice-chairman, said: “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.”
Mr Spicer tried to turn the tables on those statements during his briefing on Thursday by reading from a sheaf of news accounts that he suggested backed up the President.
Most of the news accounts, however, did not verify the President’s assertion, while several seemed to have been refuted by intelligence officials. AGENCIES