President Donald Trump's boldest effort at political misdirection is threatening to become a foreign policy mishap.
Struggling to justify Trump's charge that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, the White House repeated Thursday allegations that a British spy service wiretapped the President at the orders of former President Barack Obama. Within hours a spokesperson for the agency issued a rebuttal of the charge and a rebuke of the White House for elevating the claim.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct 'wire tapping' against the then President Elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored," a spokesperson for GCHQ said in a rare statement Thursday.
GCHQ, the British government's signals intelligence agency and the equivalent to the U.S. National Security Agency, was brought into the spiraling controversy over Donald Trump's claims that he was the subject of surveillance ordered by Obama on March 14 by Napolitano, a conservative Fox News personality.
In an interview with Fox & Friends, Napolitano claimed he had learned that Obama called on the British agency to spy on Trump, citing three unnamed sources. On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated the claim, as he argued that the existence of media reports justified Trump's March 4 tweets accusing Obama of espionage targeted at his successor.
The Administration has struggled to justify Trump's charge for more than a week, as the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee jointly stated Thursday they've seen no evidence of any surveillance of Trump Tower. Even Trump allies in Congress are staying away from the claim, though Trump maintained Wednesday in an interview with Fox News that he would be vindicated by new information "very soon." The White House has argued that Trump's use of quotation marks around the phrase wires tapped implied he meant all manners of surveillance against him, but hasn't offered any official proof of the claim, beyond reports in the press.
Reading a long list of media reports that mentioned alleged signals intelligence about Trump and his ties to Russia, Spicer quoted comments.
"Last, on Fox News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement," Spicer said during the daily White House briefing. "'Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ, what is that? It’s the initials for the British Intelligence Spying Agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, "The President needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump," he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.'"
"Putting the published accounts and common sense together, this leads to a lot," Spicer said, by way of trying to offer proof for Trump's claim, but at the same time lending credence to the unfounded claim.
Asked by a reporter whether the subject of GCHQ's alleged involvement had raised between the two governments and whether it would affect the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K., Spicer backtracked.
"No, no, it has not been raised," Spicer said. "But I do think that, again, we’re not — all we’re doing is literally reading off what other stations and people have reported, and I think that casts into concern some of the activities that may have occurred during the ’16 election. We’re not casting judgment on that. I think the idea is to say that if these organizations, these individuals came to these conclusions, they merit looking into."
The U.S. and the U.K., along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, form the Five Eyes — a decades-old intelligence sharing operation in which the countries share much of their signals intelligence and pledge not to spy on each another.