President Trump refused Friday to back off his unsubstantiated accusation that President Obama ordered surveillance of him, instead dismissing questions about it by cracking a joke that revived one of the most troublesome diplomatic episodes of Obama’s tenure.
Trump was asked twice about his wiretap claim during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He ignored the first question and only briefly addressed the issue in answering the second.
“As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump said, gesturing toward Merkel and prompting an awkward smile from the German leader as she shuffled papers at an adjacent lectern.
Trump was referring to a disclosure in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. had spied in Germany, including monitoring Merkel’s cellphone. The revelation dealt a major blow to U.S.-German relations and damaged Merkel’s standing at home. The U.S. had to make a significant diplomatic effort to patch up the relationship.
Friday’s comments, in which the president variously blamed reporters, a Fox News commentator and British officials for rousing the debate, added to what has become worldwide fallout from Trump’s allegations against Obama, made in a series of early-morning tweets March 4. The issue has consumed attention and energy that Trump might have otherwise spent to sell Republicans’ healthcare plan or his budget proposal or to contain the growing nuclear danger in North Korea.
Republican leaders have grown visibly frustrated at having to answer questions about the claim, which the White House defended even after leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said this week that they had seen no evidence to substantiate it.
In reviving the sore point with Merkel, Trump risked upsetting a delicate relationship with an important partner, which was already frayed by insults Trump lobbed at her during the presidential campaign in which he said she was ruining Germany by accepting too many refugees.
The controversy caused a separate rift with Great Britain, another close ally.
The British were ruffled after Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, read from a series of news stories while mounting a lengthy and vigorous defense of Trump’s accusation during Thursday’s televised White House briefing. One story included an allegation from Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that Obama had used British spies to snoop on Trump at his New York high-rise.
The allegations are “nonsense” and “should be ignored,” said an official for Britain’s General Communications Headquarters, its secretive signals intelligence agency, in a rare statement.
British media reported that Spicer and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, issued a formal apology. A White House official who declined to be named pushed back against that characterization. The official conceded that British Ambassador Kim Darroch and Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s 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,” said the White House official, who would not be named while describing private discussions between U.S. and British officials.
Trump also brushed the issue aside during his news conference.
“That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox,” Trump said. “And so you shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox. OK?”
But even Fox News, the conservative network that Trump considers a media ally, was unwilling to stand behind the commentary. Within minutes of Trump’s comments, anchor Shepard Smith attempted to distance the network from Trump’s allegations.
“Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way, full stop,” he said.
“I don’t think we regret anything,” he told reporters Friday. “We literally listed a litany of media reports that are in the public domain.”
One House Republican called on Trump to apologize to Obama.
“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.”
Obama, who has previously denied ordering a wiretap of Trump, stayed silent. But his former aides fumed.
“Spicer’s slam against the British yesterday and the president’s snide reference to a sticking point in modern U.S.-German relations, which the Obama administration worked assiduously to overcome, is just another indication that this administration prioritizes the president’s personal vanity over our broader national interests,” Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the National Security Council during the Obama administration, wrote in an email.
Despite the raw nerves, the impact on the relationship with Britain will likely be short-lived and limited to top diplomats. U.S. and British intelligence agents have worked side by side for decades, and those working-level relationships are unlikely to be derailed by a dust-up with the White House.
Officers and investigators with the two countries’ spy agencies work daily at the ground level to share information on moves by China and Russia, dismantle international criminal networks and stop terrorist attacks, among other operations. They are among the so-called Five Eyes nations, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, that have an expansive intelligence-sharing agreement.
But there is a concern that if unfounded accusations are repeated over time, the confidence that close allies have in Trump’s judgment could erode. U.S. and British intelligence officers are still bruised by the series of misjudgments over former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction that then-President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair used to justify the Iraq invasion.