White House cites claim that Obama had British spies monitor Trump. Ridiculous, says UK agency
Faced with growing bipartisan agreement there is no proof to back Donald Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama, the White House on Thursday cited unproven media reports that Obama had British spies monitor Trump in order to “make sure there were no American fingerprints.”
Speaking from the White House podium press secretary Sean Spicer quoted at length from a Fox News report, which alleged Obama had used the British GCHQ intelligence agency to dodge US legal restrictions on monitoring US citizens.
The story was one of several offered by Spicer as evidence to support the president’s explosive claims that Obama had moved to “tap my phones.”
In a series of tweets on March 4, Trump accused Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate”-like plot that would almost certainly break US law, if true. “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” one tweet read.
Members of Congress from both parties who are investigating the claims have found no evidence to support them.
In the Fox report – which came almost two weeks later – commentator Andrew Napolitano claimed that “three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command” to order the tap.
“He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice,” Napolitano, a former judge, said, adding that Obama used GCHQ.
Spicer’s citation, in front of the White House seal, raised some eyebrows in London and at the Cheltenham-headquartered agency, which has worked closely with US intelligence for decades.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense,” one GCHQ spokesperson said.
“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman reiterated the GCHQ agency’s denial of a report which had been repeated by the US president’s spokesman on Thursday – and said the claims “should be ignored”.
“We have made this clear to the administration and have received assurances that these allegations will not be repeated,” the PM’s spokesman said.
Britain’s ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch spoke directly to Spicer, although May’s spokesman refused to say whether the US administration had apologised.
“The fact is, within the Five Eyes pact, we cannot use each other’s capabilities to circumvent our laws,” May’s spokesman said. “It’s a situation that simply wouldn’t arise.”
Britain and the United States are - along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand - part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance forged from the embers of the second world war.
Angrily defending Trump’s assertions, White House spokesman Spicer told reporters the US President “stands by” the four tweets that sparked a firestorm that has threatened Trump’s credibility with lawmakers.
Despite his citation of Napolitano’s claims, Spicer denounced reporters for taking the president’s words too literally and suggested lawmakers were basing their assessments on incomplete information.
Spicer’s comments were a rebuttal to the top two members of the Senate intelligence committee, who released a statement earlier Thursday declaring there is no indication that Trump Tower was “the subject of surveillance” by the US government before or after the 2016 election. Spicer suggested the statement from senators Richard Burr,a Republican, and Mark Warner, a Democrat, was made without a full review of the evidence or, incorrectly, a briefing from the Justice Department.
“They are not findings,” he said.
Burr and Warner were among eight senior congressional leaders briefed by FBI Director James Comey on March 10. A Senate aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the senators’ private briefings, said Spicer was incorrect in claiming Burr and Warner had not been briefed on the matter.
“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,” Burr and Warner said in a one-sentence joint statement Thursday afternoon.
The phrasing of the statement left open the possibility that tenants or employees working in the tower may have been monitored. In response to Trump’s claims and a request from the House intelligence committee, the Justice Department is doing its own review of whether Trump or any of his associates were the subject of surveillance. The department is slated to provide a response to the committee by Monday.
The standoff between the White House and lawmakers came four days before Comey is slated to testify before Congress, when he will inevitably be asked whether the president’s accusations are accurate. The White House’s refusal to back down raised the stakes for Comey’s appearance before the intelligence committee on Monday.
Trump, in an interview Wednesday with Fox News, said he’d learned about the alleged wiretapping from news reports referencing intercepted communications, despite the fact that he and his advisers have publicly denounced stories about government agencies reviewing contacts between Trump associates and Russians.
Trump said there would be “some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
In the two weeks since the tweets, the White House has tried to soften the statement, but not disavowed it.
Additional reporting by Associated Press