British Government Denies Wiretapping Trump Campaign

Mar 17, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.K. is denying that it wiretapped Donald Trump on behalf of then President Obama during the 2016 campaign. This morning, 10 Downing Street said the White House had assured British officials that it would not repeat these charges again. The U.K. agency in question - the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ - called the claims utterly ridiculous. For more on this dispute between the U.S. and one of its closest allies, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. And, Frank, remind us of how we got here.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, this all started yesterday. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated a claim on Fox News that Obama had actually outsourced spying on Trump to the United Kingdom, which we should note these allegations are unsubstantiated. Here's what Spicer said at yesterday's regular briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn't use the NSA. He didn't use the CIA. He didn't use the FBI, and he didn't use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It's the initials for the British intelligence spy agency.

SIEGEL: Yeah, it's the British equivalent of the NSA. And Spicer was trying to justify there was so much in the news, he said, about surveillance of Trump Tower that that's what gave the president the idea of tweeting about being tapped. The president then today responded at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when he was asked about the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn't make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn't be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox, OK?

SIEGEL: So that's, frankly, the highest-level American response you can get. What's been the reaction to all this in London?

LANGFITT: Well, the reaction this morning before the president addressed it was very, very negative. Sir Malcolm Rifkind - he chaired a parliamentary Intelligence Committee. He was on BBC this morning. He called these allegations garbage and rubbish.

I was speaking to a guy named Ian Bond. He's a retired diplomat. He handled foreign policy in the U.K. embassy in D.C. for five years until 2012. Here was his response when I called him.

IAN BOND: I thought it was absolutely bizarre. I thought it was quite extraordinary.

SIEGEL: I gather Ian Bond says that this business actually could prove serious.

LANGFITT: Well, sure. I mean, one of the questions also with the president is, what does he believe and what influences his decision making, especially, as Bond was pointing out, if two countries face some kind of crisis? Bond sort of provided this hypothetical.

BOND: Let us suppose that at some point in the future, the national security adviser goes to the president and says, Mr. President, we have intelligence of an impending attack on a U.S. facility somewhere. And the president says, where does this come from? And the answer is GCHQ. Does the president say, these are very serious professionals who know what they're talking about, or does he say, these are the people who plotted against me?

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit the White House. She's invited President Trump to the U.K. for a state visit. How does this controversy affect that larger relationship?

LANGFITT: Prime Minister May has come under criticism for moving too quickly to be close with President Trump. And this is something that will probably give people in the British government pause and may make her think a little more carefully about how close she gets to him and how closely she wants to work with him.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.