Friday, March 17, 2017

White House Tries to Soothe British Officials Over Trump Wiretap Claim

The White House has tried to soothe an angry Britain after suggesting that President Barack Obama used London’s spy agency to conduct secret surveillance on President Trump while he was a candidate last year but offered no public apology on Friday.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that the White House had backed off the allegation. “We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated.”

The reassurances came after British officials complained to Trump administration officials. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, spoke with Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, at a St. Patrick’s Day reception in Washington on Thursday night just hours after Mr. Spicer aired the assertion at his daily briefing. Mark Lyall Grant, the prime minister’s national security adviser, spoke separately with his American counterpart, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

“Ambassador Kim Darroch and Sir Mark Lyall expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and General McMaster,” a White House official said on condition of anonymity to confirm private conversations. “Mr. Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story.”

Other White House officials, who also would not be named, said Mr. Spicer offered no regret to the ambassador. “He didn’t apologize, no way, no how,” said a senior West Wing official. The officials said they did not know whether General McMaster had apologized.

The controversy over Mr. Trump’s two-week-old unsubstantiated accusation that Mr. Obama had wiretapped his telephones last year continued to unnerve even Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans. Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said Friday that Mr. Trump had not proven his case and should tell Mr. Obama he was sorry.

“Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling truth, I think President Obama is owed an apology,” Mr. Cole told reporters. “If he didn’t do it, we shouldn’t be reckless in accusations that he did.”

The flap with Britain started when Mr. Spicer, in the course of defending Mr. Trump’s original accusation against Mr. Obama, on Thursday read from the White House lectern comments by a Fox News commentator asserting that the British spy agency was involved. Andrew Napolitano, the commentator, said on air that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the signals agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump.

The GCHQ quickly and vehemently denied the contention on Thursday in a rare statement issued by the spy agency, calling the assertions “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” By Friday morning, Mr. Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians expressed outrage and demanded apologies and retractions from the American government.

Mr. Trump’s critics assailed the White House for alienating America’s friend. “The cost of falsely blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated,” Susan E. Rice, who was Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, wrote on Twitter. “And from the PODIUM.”

Mr. Trump has continued to stick by his claim about Mr. Obama even after it has been refuted by a host of current and former officials, including leaders of his own party. Mr. Obama denied it, as did the former director of national intelligence. The F.B.I. director has privately told other officials that it is false. After being briefed by intelligence officials, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have in the last few days said they have seen no indication that Mr. Trump’s claim is true.[...]

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