A controversy that began with a tweet from President Donald Trump—and was then given fuel by an erroneous report on Fox News—has led to the White House reportedly having to apologize to Britain.
The tweet, which the president posted on March 4, alleged that the Obama administration had spied on Trump during the election campaign by wire-tapping Trump Tower. Subsequent tweets expanded on the allegation, asking "How low has President Obama gone?" and calling the former president a "bad (or sick) guy."
According to the New York Times, the president came to the conclusion that he had been spied on based in part on a story from the right-wing news site Breitbart News, which in turn was based on an unverified report by conservative talk-show host Mark Levin.
During a press briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued his attempts to defend these allegations, despite the complete lack of any supporting evidence and comments from senior intelligence officials that no such behavior occurred.
At one point, Spicer referred to a Fox News report that said the surveillance was likely carried out by Britain's equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, which is known as the GCHQ.
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"He’s able to get it, and there’s no American fingerprints on it," Spicer said. "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."
In what security experts said was an almost unprecedented response, the British agency publicly denounced this allegation on Thursday, calling it "nonsense" and "utterly ridiculous." Political observers say accusing the British government of helping to spy on a candidate during a national election in the U.S. is a severe breach of protocol.
As a result, Spicer reportedly apologized personally to the British ambassador, and U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster apologized through his equivalent within the British government.
According to multiple news reports, both men also promised the British government that the White House would not repeat the allegations in the future.
"We've made clear to the US administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored [and] we've received assurances that these allegations won't be repeated," a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said, according to CNN.
BuzzFeed, however, said on Friday that its White House sources stopped short of saying that Spicer or General McMaster had actually apologized to the British government, and said only that they had tried to "smooth things over" with U.K. authorities. Others also suggested there was no formal apology.
Spicer's comments were based on a report on Fox News from former judge Andrew Napolitano, who said that multiple sources told him President Obama used GCHQ to do the surveillance of Trump.
"Simply by having two people saying to them [the] president needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump's conversations, involving president-elect Trump, he's able to get it and there's no American fingerprints," Napolitano said.
While he is a legal expert the Fox News network uses from time to time, Napolitano has no known track record when it comes to reporting on intelligence matters, nor is he known to have any sources within the intelligence community. He has also publicly questioned the government's official story on the 9/11 attacks.