President Donald Trump refused on Friday to retract his controversial claim that Barack Obama tapped his phones, and he dismissed the White House’s decision to make reference to an unverified report that Britain helped to make the alleged wiretaps .
While minimizing diplomatic friction with what may be the closest US ally, Trump also revived another – the Obama administration’s espionage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.
“At least we have something in common, maybe,” he said sarcastically during a joint conference with Merkel.
The German leader, on her first visit to the White House since Trump took office, was shocked by the president’s remark, which appeared to have been prepared in advance. Spying by the Obama administration made Germany angry at the time and created the risk of damaging the US relationship with one of its most important European partners.
Trump’s recent accusations against his predecessor, of which he has presented no evidence, have made him increasingly isolated. His Republican colleagues and Democratic lawmakers have said they have not seen any information from intelligence agencies that supports such claims.
But Trump, who rarely acknowledges being wrong, has been impassive, and has left his advisors the task of defending the president without any credible evidence.
Sean Spicer, a White House spokesman, quoted a Fox News analyst saying Thursday that GCHQ, the British electronic espionage agency, had helped Obama intervene in trump phone tapping. News head Shepard Smith of Fox News said Friday that the network could not independently verify the reports of Andrew Napolitano, an ex-judge and commentator who has met with Trump.
The GCHQ refuted the allegations in a public statement, saying the report was “absolutely ridiculous and should be ignored.”
According to a Western diplomat, the British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, told the White House on Tuesday that Napolitano’s claims were false. Despite that, it was one of several news reports Spicer made reference to at his Thursday meeting with reporters in which he made a fierce defense of the president’s statements.
Darroch and other British officials complained directly to the White House after the events, and the office of Prime Minister Theresa May said they assured him that the presidency would no longer repeat the allegations. Spicer was very apologetic when Darroch confronted him Thursday at a dinner at the White House, the Western diplomat said.
But Trump did not offer public apologies and hinted that there is nothing wrong with the White House repeating what it has heard.
“All we did was quote a very talented legal mind who was the one who said that on TV,” Trump said at the Friday press conference. “They should not be talking to me, they should be talking to Fox.”
Spicer also looked defiant on Friday and told reporters: “I do not think we regret anything.”
A White House official confirmed that Darroch and Mark Lyall Grant, the national security adviser to the British Prime Minister, expressed concern to both Spicer and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. Spicer and McMaster said the press secretary only drew public reports and did not endorse any specific story, the official said.
The United States and Britain are members of the Five-Eye alliance to share intelligence, which prohibits its members from spying on one another. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the other members.
The diplomat and the White House official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be able to testify about private conversations.
The president is a voracious consumer of news and often repeats information he reads or listens on television, often without first checking it. It was a story in Breitbart – the far right website that used to be led by its adviser Steve Bannon – that apparently unleashed Trump’s tweets on March 4 in which he accused Obama of spying on the New York skyscraper where he Candidate lived and ran his presidential campaign.