Spokesman for UK Prime Minister says Britain has received assurances that claims won't be repeated
White House Press Secretary read out media claims of GCHQ involvement in Trump spying
White House press secretary Sean Spicer flatly denied Friday that the White House apologized to the British government after citing an uncorroborated Fox News report to allege that a UK intelligence agency spied on President Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama.
Earlier in the day, however, a senior administration official told CNN that Spicer and national security adviser H.R. McMaster offered what amounted to an apology to the British government for Spicer’s comments on Thursday, when he cited a Fox News report that said British intelligence helped wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
“I don’t think we regret anything,” Spicer told reporters at a gaggle Friday afternoon. Asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta if there was an apology by the administration to the British government over the matter, Spicer replied, “No, we were just passing on news reports.”
Earlier Friday, a White House official told CNN that McMaster spoke with his British counterpart on Thursday about Spicer’s comment.
The official described the conversation as “cordial” where McMaster described Spicer’s comment as “unintentional.”
McMaster also told his counterpart that “their concerns were understood and heard and it would be relayed to the White House.”
The official said there were “at least two calls” from British officials on Thursday and that the British ambassador to the United States called Spicer to discuss the comment.
“Sean was pointing to the breadth of reporting, not endorsing any specific story,” the official said.
White House officials later told CNN that it was British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch and Sir Mark Lyall Grant, national security adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, who “expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and Gen. McMaster” in two separate conversations on Thursday.
“Mr. Spicer and Gen. McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story,” one official said.
Spicer spoke to Darroch face-to-face at a White House St. Patrick’s Day event, according to a British government official, who described the meeting as “serious” in tone and said it was not cordial.
’These claims are ridiculous’
Earlier Friday, a spokesman for May said senior UK officials had protested to the Trump administration after the claims were repeated by Spicer.
“We’ve made clear to the US administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored. We’ve received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” May’s spokesman said.
At a Thursday press briefing, Spicer read out allegations originally made on Tuesday on Fox News by legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ – the equivalent of the US National Security Agency – had spied on Trump.
“Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command (to spy on Trump). He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA … he used GCHQ,’” Spicer told journalists.
The strong language from Downing Street – which followed a similar, rare statement from the UK intelligence agency GCHQ – indicated that the British government was furious that the US had made such an incendiary allegation.
GCHQ: Wiretap claims are ‘nonsense’
GCHQ said the claim was “nonsense” and should be ignored. The agency rarely comments on specific operations, and almost never in such blunt terms. Asked if the conversations between the US and British officials were heated, the British government official pointed to the rarity of a GCHQ public statement on the matter, saying, “you can draw your conclusions from there.”