WASHINGTON — President Trump refused to back down Friday after his White House aired an unverified claim that Britain’s spy agency secretly monitored him during last year’s campaign at the behest of President Obama.
Although his aides in private conversations since Thursday night had tried to calm British officials who were livid over the claim, Trump made clear that he felt the White House had nothing to retract or apologize for. He said his spokesman was simply repeating an assertion made by a Fox News commentator.
“We said nothing,” Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a joint White House news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox,” Trump added.
Trump, who has stuck by his unsubstantiated assertion that Obama ordered his telephone tapped last year despite across-the-board denials, wryly used Merkel’s visit to repeat his contention.
Merkel was angry during Obama’s administration at reports that the United States had tapped her cellphone and those of other foreign leaders. Turning to her, Trump said, “At least we have something in common, perhaps.”
After the news conference White House spokesman Sean Spicer echoed Trump’s defiant tone. “I don’t think we regret anything,” he told reporters. “As the president said, I was just reading off media reports.”
Shortly afterward, Fox backed off the claim made by its commentator, Andrew Napolitano.
“Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary,” the anchor Shepard Smith said on air. “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, any way. Full stop.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said 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 the condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated.”
Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, spoke with Spicer at a St. Patrick’s Day reception in Washington on Thursday night just hours after Spicer aired the assertion at his daily briefing.
Mark Lyall Grant, the prime minister’s national security adviser, spoke separately with his US counterpart, Lieutenant General 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 the 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 requested anonymity, said Spicer had 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 McMaster had apologized.
The controversy over Trump’s two-week-old unsubstantiated accusation that Obama had wiretapped his telephones last year continued to unnerve even fellow Republicans. Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said Friday that Trump had not proved his case and should apologize to Obama.
“Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling truth, I think President Obama is owed an apology,” 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 Spicer, in the course of defending Trump’s original accusation against Obama, on Thursday read from the White House lectern comments by Napolitano asserting that the British spy agency was involved.
Napolitano said on air that Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the signals agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Trump.
The GCHQ quickly and vehemently denied the contention Thursday in a rare statement issued by the spy agency, calling the assertions “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.”
By Friday morning, Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians expressed outrage and demanded apologies and retractions from the US government.
Trump’s critics assailed the White House for alienating America’s ally. “The cost of falsely blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated,” Susan E. Rice, who was Obama’s national security adviser, wrote on Twitter. “And from the PODIUM.”
In pointing the finger at Britain on Thursday, Spicer read from comments made by Napolitano on Fox this week.
“Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command,” Spicer read. “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?” Spicer continued. “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.”
In London, outrage quickly followed. “It’s complete garbage. It’s rubbish,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former chairman of Parliament’s intelligence committee, told BBC News.
GCHQ was the first agency to warn the US government, including the National Security Agency, that Russia was hacking Democratic Party e-mails during the presidential campaign.