Updated March 17, 2017 8:20 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump on Friday stuck to his unsubstantiated claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor and brushed off tensions his White House ignited with the U.K. by citing a media report alleging British intelligence was involved.
Mr. Trump, asked about the citation in a news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, quipped: “As far as wiretapping by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps.”
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His comment was a reference to reports of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone, which was disclosed in 2013. He also dismissed the U.K.’s fury over White House press secretary Sean Spicer reading from the podium on Thursday a Fox News commentator’s report alleging the British intelligence agency GCHQ was involved in wiretapping Trump Tower, the New York building where the president lived and worked before moving to the White House.
“We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” Mr. Trump said.
In a statement, GCHQ, which rarely comments on media reports, said any claim that the agency was asked to conduct surveillance on Mr. Trump is “utterly ridiculous.”
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said Friday that the White House had assured U.K. officials that it won’t repeat the allegations.
“We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and they should be ignored, and we’ve received assurances that these allegations will not be repeated,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
A White House official said Mr. Spicer spoke with the U.K. ambassador to the U.S., Kim Darroch, on Thursday at a St. Patrick’s Day event and gave an explanation similar to the one Mr. Trump offered on Friday. The official said Mr. Spicer didn’t apologize or promise not to repeat the allegation.
Another White House official said U.K. national security adviser Mark Lyall Grant expressed his concerns to Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in a telephone conversation Thursday night. That official said Gen. McMaster also told Mr. Grant that Mr. Spicer was pointing to public reports, not endorsing them.
Mr. Spicer told reporters after the news conference that the White House has no regrets about citing the Fox News report. He said he and other officials “just reiterated the fact that we were just simply reading media accounts.”
“That’s it,” he said. “I don’t think we regret anything. We literally listed a litany of media reports that are in the public domain.”
In response to a request for comment, Fox News referred to an on-air statement made Friday afternoon by anchor Shepard Smith, which read: “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. 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.”
The wiretapping drama began a couple of weeks ago, when Mr. Trump publicly accused former President Barack Obama of ordering the wiretapping of Trump Tower. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on March 4.
Mr. Obama forcefully denied the charge through a spokesperson.
The White House has ever since been trying to explain his comments and tried to justify the charge without putting forward any evidence to back it up, despite growing pressure to do so.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have increasingly distanced themselves from Mr. Trump’s claim, with the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees and House Speaker Paul Ryan saying this week that they have seen no evidence backing up the accusation.
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and a member of the House GOP leadership, said Friday that Mr. Trump should put forward compelling evidence of his claim that he was wiretapped or apologize to Mr. Obama.
“Frankly, unless you can provide some pretty compelling proof, then I think the president, President Obama, is owed an apology,” Mr. Cole said.
Dominic Grieve, the chairman of British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, said Friday the GCHQ’s public denial indicates the strong feelings about the issue.
“First, I should make clear that the president of the United States is not able to task GCHQ to intercept an individual’s communications,” Mr. Grieve said in a statement. “Second, longstanding agreements between the Five Eyes countries means that the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand cannot ask each other to target each other’s citizens or individuals that they cannot themselves target, or in any other way seek to circumvent their own or each other’s legal and policy obligations.”
Mr. Grieve added that GCHQ can only legally target an individual with a signoff by a cabinet minister who deems it necessary and proportional for a valid national-security purpose, and that it is “inconceivable” that these legal requirements could have been met in these circumstances.
Appeared in the Mar. 18, 2017, print edition as ‘Trump Stands By Wiretap Claim; No U.K. Apology.’
Tags: Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Britain, British intelligence, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fox News, GCHQ, House and Senate Intelligence Committee, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, Merkel's phone, National Security Agency, Sean Spicer, Shepard Smith, Trump Tower, UK, US President Donald Trump, wiretaps