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White House officials scrambled to explain themselves Friday after an unusual press briefing a day earlier prompted a diplomatic flap with Britain, one of the United States' closest allies.
It began Thursday when Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a series of news stories from the White House briefing room in an attempt to defend President Trump's unsubstantiated claim that President Obama wiretapped him during the campaign. One was an allegation from a Fox News commentator, Andrew Napolitano, that Obama used British spies to snoop on Trump.
The British government was not happy.
The allegations are "nonsense" and "should be ignored," an official for the Britain's General Communications Headquarters, said in a statement Friday. The secretive signals intelligence agency is the British equivalent of the National Security Agency.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct 'wiretapping' against the then-president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” the official said.
British media reported that Spicer and H.R. McMaster, the U.S. national security advisor, issued a formal apology. A White House official who declined to be named gave a slightly different version. The official conceded that British Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch and Mark Lyall, the British national security advisor, "expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and Gen. McMaster."
"Mr. Spicer and Gen. McMaster both explained that he was simply pointing to public reports and not endorsing any specific story," the White House official said.
The official also pointed to a tweet from a reporter from the Guardian newspaper, quoting the British Embassy saying that there was "no formal apology."
U.S. officials, including Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, have said that no evidence has emerged to back Trump's claim of wiretapping. But Spicer, under pressure from Trump, has not backed down.
One House Republican called on Trump to apologize to Obama, repeating Intelligence Committee leaders' assertions that no evidence has surfaced to support Trump's claim.
"Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling proof, then ... President Obama is owed an apology in that regard," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "Because if he didn't do it, we shouldn't be reckless in accusations that he did."
9:13 a.m.: This story was updated with comment from Britain's General Communications Headquarters.