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Trump White House assures UK it won’t repeat Sean Spicer’s spy claim

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-03-2017 Toluse Olorunnipa

Washington: The White House assured UK officials that it won’t continue to repeat allegations that British intelligence helped spy on President Donald Trump before his election, a spokesman for prime minister Theresa May said Friday.

That pledge came after British officials lodged a high-level diplomatic complaint over White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s citation of a disputed Fox News commentator’s report suggesting the UK helped former President Barack Obama spy on his successor, as first reported Thursday by Bloomberg News. Spicer was attempting to bolster Trump’s unsubstantiated Twitter claims that he had been wiretapped by the previous administration.

“We have received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” James Slack, a spokesman for May, said Friday. He added that allegations that British intelligence had aided Obama in an off-the-books espionage effort were “utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

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Andrew Napolitano, a legal pundit for Fox News who has advised Trump, claimed during a 14 March telecast that three intelligence sources told the network Obama personally appealed to the British Government Communications Headquarters, known as the GCHQ, to spy on Trump. Spicer highlighted the report in a list of media accounts he read to reporters during his briefing on Thursday, arguing that the stories helped validate Trump’s allegation.

British officials have categorically denied Napolitano’s reporting, and Spicer’s decision to cite it from the White House podium threatened to strain relations between the transatlantic allies.

One US official familiar with the discussions said the British complained to the Trump administration about Spicer giving a platform to Napolitano’s remarks.

A second US official confirmed there were multiple contacts between high levels of the UK and US governments after Spicer’s briefing, including between US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and his British counterpart Mark Lyall Grant. But the official wouldn’t characterize the call. Slack said Britain’s ambassador to the US Kim Darroch was also included in efforts to lodge the complaint with the White House.

Slack said he assumed Spicer was fully aware that US officials had promised the British his claims would not be repeated. The Telegraph reported Friday that Spicer and McMaster personally apologized to the British government over the flap.

After Spicer’s briefing on Thursday, the UK GCHQ issued a rare statement flatly dismissing the Fox pundit’s reporting. “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then president elect are nonsense,” the agency said in the statement.

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Under the Five Eyes agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, allies cannot use each others’ intelligence capabilities to circumvent their own laws, Slack said.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to request for comment on whether Spicer had apologized, if the administration would no longer highlight the Napolitano remarks, or if the British government had requested an apology.

Spicer’s comments punctured a traditional day of unity between the US and UK, with British diplomats among the attendees at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Darroch, the British ambassador, was at a lunch at the Capitol also attended by the president and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, just hours before Spicer’s briefing.

The Irish-American press secretary’s comments were prompted after questions from reporters following a statement from the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said they had not seen any evidence to back up the Trump’s allegations that Obama had spied on him.

“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” said the panel’s chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and vice chairman, Mark Warner of Virginia.

The White House has said that Trump’s initial claims, posted in a flurry of tweets earlier this month, should not be taken literally. Officials have said Trump did not necessarily mean Obama personally ordered the surveillance, that wiretapping could refer to a broad range of surveillance efforts, and that the effort may not have specifically targeted Trump Tower in New York.

Trump has so far refused to fully detail what evidence he’s seen to support his allegation. In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump said he had based his tweets at least partially on media reports, but could release additional information to support his claims.

A spokesman for Obama has denied that he personally ordered surveillance against Trump.

The president’s allegations are expected to dominate a March 20 House Intelligence Committee hearing with Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. The Justice Department also faces a deadline that day to turn over any evidence that the Obama administration may have surveilled Trump. Bloomberg

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