The White House has apologized to Britain and promised it will no longer reiterate conspiracy theories about British intelligence working against President Trump.
During Thursday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer read through a litany of news stories that he argued gave credence to President Trump’s baseless accusation that President Obama wiretapped — or “wiretapped” — Trump Tower during the election. The corroborating “evidence” included remarks made by Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano, who — humoring Trump’s claims — suggested that Obama could have used a foreign intelligence service to avoid a paper trail — and that, if he did, he “more likely than not” used the British intelligence agency GCHQ to conduct that supposed surveillance.
The GCHQ, like U.S. intelligence agencies, rarely comments on its own activities, but in this case, it responded that such allegations are “utterly ridiculous” and “should be ignored.” U.S. National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster personally apologized for the claims and gave Britain assurances the White House would not repeat the claims again, according to The Telegraph.
In fact, British officials had already been decrying Napolitano’s claims earlier in the week, calling them “totally untrue and quite frankly absurd.” A British security official explained that under British law, GCHQ “can only gather intelligence for national security purposes” and that the U.S. election “clearly doesn’t meet that criteria.” Indeed, the agency “can only carry out intelligence operations where it is legal in both the U.S. and UK to do so.”
This rebuke from Britain is yet another blow to the Trump administration, which has been floundering for two weeks now to defend the allegations Trump made on Twitter against his predecessor. On Monday, for example, Kellyanne Conway absurdly suggested that microwave ovens might have been turned into cameras to spy on Trump.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have both now publicly said that there is no evidence to support the wiretapping claims. Spicer responded to those statements Thursday by saying the President “stands by” his belief that the surveillance occurred.
UPDATE: The White House is already changing the story. Apparently, there was no apology. According to the Washington Post’s Abby Phillip, Spicer and McMaster now say they that the inclusion of Napolitano’s story at the briefing was not meant to be an endorsement. Spicer was simply highlighting that there were reports of wiretapping.
WH official says Spicer and McMaster "explained" to U.K. Ambassador that he was just pointing to media reports not endorsing pic.twitter.com/qJRrtePO5K
— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) March 17, 2017
David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, highlighted how quickly the Trump administrations’ tactic changed:
First report: Formal apology
Second report: No, it was just a promise not to repeat
Third report: actually, unrepentant blame-shifting https://t.co/0j0Y6IaS2L
— David Frum (@davidfrum) March 17, 2017
UPDATE: At his press conference Friday afternoon with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump was asked specifically about his claims of being wiretapped and the suggestion that British intelligence was to blame. Trump responded first by making an awkward joke that he and Merkel “have something in common,” a reference to reports that under Obama, the NSA spied on Germany and Merkel herself.
Then Trump insisted that when Spicer read from the podium at his press briefing, “We said nothing.” Instead, he passed the blame to Napolitano, who he called a “very talented legal mind,” for making the claim on television. “I didn’t make an opinion on it,” Trump said, adding, “So you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”
UPDATE: Shortly after Trump’s comments, Fox News’ Shepard Smith distanced the network from Napolitano’s comments: “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.”