WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday stood by his unproven claim that his predecessor wiretapped his phones, suggesting he was the victim of the same sort of surveillance the Obama administration was once alleged to have used to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calls.
“At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Merkel.
Merkel, who was making her first visit to the White House since Trump took office, did not weigh in on the 2013 incident, which angered many in Germany.
Trump’s allegations against President Barack Obama have sparked a reactions ranging from bafflement to anger in Washington, with both Democrats and Republican lawmakers saying they have no evidence to support his claim. But the White House’s refusal to back down has created more problems for the new administration.
On Thursday, spokesman Sean Spicer defended the president’s comments by repeating a Fox News analyst’s report that GCHQ, the British electronic intelligence agency, had helped Obama wiretap Trump. The agency vigorously denied the charge and Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, complained directly to White House officials.
Trump tried to distance himself from the report Friday.
“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” Trump said, referring to analyst Andrew Napolitano. “You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”
The British government said the White House has promised it won’t repeat the allegation. Spicer, speaking with reporters following Trump’s news conference, said: “I don’t think we regret anything.”
According to a Western diplomat, Spicer and Darroch had spoken by telephone on Tuesday, at which time Darroch asserted that there was no basis to the report.
A White House official confirmed that Darroch and the prime minister’s national security adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, expressed concerns to both Spicer and Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Spicer and McMaster both said that Spicer was simply pointing to public reports and not endorsing any specific story, the official said.
The diplomat and White House official both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said Friday that the British government made it clear to Spicer that the “ridiculous” claims should be ignored.
“We have a close, special relationship with the White House and that allows us to raise concerns as and when they arise as was true in this case,” said May spokesman James Slack. “We have made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and that they should be ignored and we have received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” he told reporters at a regular briefing on Friday.
Trump tweeted earlier this month that Obama “was tapping my phones in October” and compared the incident to “Nixon/Watergate” and “McCarthyism.”
The claim is prompting growing bipartisan agreement that there’s no evidence to back up the claim and mounting pressure to retract the statement. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence weighed in Thursday, finding “no indications” that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance.
Republicans in Congress also said Trump should retract his claims. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., called the accusation against Britain “inexplicable” and the accusation against Obama unfounded.
“A president only has so much political capital to expend and so much moral authority as well, and so any time your credibility takes a hit, I think in many ways it weakens the officeholder,” Dent said.
Slack would not say whether Spicer or any other American officials apologized, noting, “we have received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated and this shows the administration doesn’t give the allegations any credence.”
However, the Western diplomat confirmed that Spicer was very apologetic when confronted by Darroch at a White House dinner on Thursday.
The British intelligence agency, which rarely comments on allegations about intelligence matters, flatly denied the claim, responding with a statement calling the allegations “nonsense.”
“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” read the statement, which was issued on condition that it be attributed to an anonymous spokesperson to protect the identity of agency staff.
Slack pointed out that GCHQ could not have spied on Trump because the U.K. and the U.S. are both members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, and under “the Five Eyes pact, we cannot use each other’s capabilities to circumvent laws.”