White House tries to reassure British officials over wiretap claim

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer during the daily briefing at the White House Thursday.
Al Drago/New York Times
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer during the daily briefing at the White House Thursday.

WASHINGTON — The White House tried to soothe an angry Britain after suggesting that President Barack Obama used London’s spy agency to conduct secret surveillance on President Donald Trump while he was a candidate last year.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, both contacted British officials to try to deal with an unusual rupture between the United States and its closest international ally. British media reported that they offered apologies, but the White House did not immediately comment on Friday.

The flap started when Spicer, in the course of defending Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that Obama ordered the future president’s phones tapped last year, 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 Obama 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 in a rare statement issued by the spy agency on Thursday, calling the assertions “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” By Friday morning, Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians expressed outraged and demanded apologies and retractions from the U.S. government.

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Spicer conveyed an apology to Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, and McMaster contacted Mark Lyall Grant, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

Two British officials confirmed on Friday that Spicer and Darroch spoke on Thursday night but would not confirm that the press secretary apologized. “We won’t get into private conversations,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with British diplomatic protocols.

Trump has continued to stick by his claim about Obama even after it has been refuted by a host of current and former officials, including leaders of his own party.

Spicer tried to turn the tables on those statements during his briefing on Thursday by reading from a sheaf of news accounts that he suggested backed up the president. Most of the news accounts, however, did not verify the president’s assertion while several seemed to have been refuted by intelligence officials.