Trump drags key allies into wiretap controversy

In an apparent reference to reports that the US bugged German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone during the Obama presidency, President Donald Trump says "at least we have something in common," when asked about the wiretap claims. VIDEO: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's unproven allegation that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower in New York ahead of the election blazed a new path of political disruption as he dragged two foreign allies into his increasingly thin argument that he is right.

Standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a White House news conference on Friday, Mr Trump declined to express regret for the accusation he tweeted on March 4.

Mr Trump also passed on the opportunity to reject an unfounded report from a Fox News commentator asserting that British intelligence agents were involved in the alleged spying.

"As far as wiretapping, I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps," Mr Trump said to Dr Merkel, referring to reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her phone in 2010 under then President Barack Obama.

Dr Merkel did not respond to Mr Trump's attempt at a joke.

JOKE ATTEMPT

As far as wiretapping, I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps.

US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, speaking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and referring to reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her phone in 2010 under then President Barack Obama.

The US President also said he was merely quoting the Fox report so questions should be asked of Fox News, not him.

Since Mr Trump's tweets alleging the wiretapping were posted, the White House has called for a congressional investigation, declined to comment, pointed to media reports that do not contain the information that aides say they do and analysed the President's use of quotation marks - all while doubling down on his claim without providing any evidence.

In one instance, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said televisions or microwaves could have been used as surveillance cameras - a comment she later said was a joke. In recent days, Mr Trump and his press secretary Sean Spicer have also said the allegations referred to broader surveillance efforts.

Meanwhile, an Obama spokesman and several members of the Obama administration have publicly denied the accusation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other prominent leaders - including all four top-ranking members of the two intelligence committees - have announced in Congress that they had no evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped.

But on Thursday, Mr Spicer again attempted to buttress Mr Trump's claim by citing comments made by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano that Britain's intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), helped Mr Obama to spy on Mr Trump.

The allegations have angered British officials. In a rare public statement, the GCHQ said the claims were "utterly ridiculous" and should be ignored. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that Britain had "received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated".

Fox itself later disavowed the report, saying it "knows of no evidence of any kind" that Mr Trump had been under surveillance.

But the White House still did not retreat and Mr Spicer denied that an apology was made to the British government.

"I don't think we regret anything," Mr Spicer said. "We literally listed a litany of media reports that were in the public domain."

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Trump drags key allies into wiretap controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe