WASHINGTON — The White House has promised that it won’t repeat its claim that U.K. spies snooped on President Donald Trump, the British government said Friday.
The agreement comes after White House press secretary Sean Spicer pointed to the debunked claim publicly in a bid to defend Trump’s earlier suggestion that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Trump has not provided any evidence to support that claim, and several lawmakers say there isn’t any.
Downing St. said that Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, spoke to White House press secretary Sean Spicer directly, and that the prime minister’s national security adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, also spoke to people in the Trump administration to put the claim to rest.
Spicer asserted Thursday that Trump’s Twitter accusations that President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones in October were a broad reference to “surveillance,” not to wiretapping specifically.
In an attempt to bolster his case, Spicer spent nearly 10 minutes reading from news reports which he said pointed to possible evidence of surveillance. Among the items he quoted from was a transcript of a recent appearance by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano on the network, in which Napolitano suggested GCHQ, the British electronic intelligence agency, had helped with the alleged tapping. Obama, he claimed, “went outside the chain of command” so there were “no American fingerprints on this.”
According to a Western diplomat, Spicer had been made aware two days prior to Thursday’s White House press briefing that the Napolitano report was untrue. Spicer and Darroch had spoken by telephone on Tuesday the diplomat said, during which time Darroch asserted that there was no basis to the report.
Spicer, speaking with reporters following Trump’s news conference, said: “I don’t think we regret anything.”
A White House official confirmed that Darroch and Lyall expressed their concerns to both Sean 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.”
Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Erica Werner contributed to this report from Washington.
This story has been updated to include Spicer’s reaction on Friday.