WASHINGTON — The White House has tried to soothe an angry Britain after suggesting that President Barack Obama used London’s spy agency to conduct secret surveillance on President Trump while he was a candidate last year.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that the White House had backed off the allegation, although it was not clear whether it had apologized for airing it in the first place.
“We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated. We have a close relationship which allows us to raise concerns when they arise, as was true in this case. This shows the administration doesn’t give the allegations any credence.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, spoke with Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, on Thursday night to try to smooth over the unusual rupture between the United States and its closest international ally. The White House said it would issue a statement later on Friday morning.
The flap started when Mr. Spicer, in the course of defending Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that Mr. Obama had ordered the future president’s phones tapped last year, read from the White House lectern comments by a Fox News commentator asserting that the British spy agency was involved. Andrew Napolitano, the commentator, said on air that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the signals agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump.
The GCHQ quickly and vehemently denied the contention in a rare statement issued by the spy agency on Thursday, calling the assertions “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” By Friday morning, Mr. Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians expressed outrage and demanded apologies and retractions from the American government.
Two British officials confirmed on Friday morning that Mr. Spicer and Mr. Darroch spoke on Thursday night but would not confirm that the press secretary apologized. “We won’t get into private conversations,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with British diplomatic protocols.
Mr. Trump has continued to stick by his claim about Mr. Obama even after it has been refuted by a host of current and former officials, including leaders of his own party. Mr. Obama denied it, as has the former director of national intelligence. The F.B.I. director has privately told other officials that it is false. After being briefed by intelligence officials, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have in the last few days said they have seen no indication that Mr. Trump’s claim is true.
Mr. Spicer tried to turn the tables on those statements during his briefing on Thursday by reading from a sheaf of news accounts that he suggested backed up the president. Most of the news accounts, however, did not verify the president’s assertion while several seemed to have been refuted by intelligence officials.
For instance, he read several stories from The New York Times, which has written extensively on an investigation into contacts between associates of Mr. Trump and Russian officials. The Times has reported that intelligence agencies have access to intercepted conversations as part of that investigation. But it has never reported that Mr. Obama authorized the surveillance, nor that Mr. Trump himself was monitored.
Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said this week that “it’s possible” Mr. Trump or others were swept up in the course of other surveillance but when it came to the president’s assertion that Mr. Obama authorized tapping of Trump Tower, “clearly the president was wrong.”
His Senate counterpart, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, issued a joint statement on Thursday with Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, saying they saw “no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”
In pointing the finger at Britain on Thursday, Mr. Spicer read from comments made by Mr. Napolitano on Fox this week. “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command,” Mr. Spicer read. “He didn’t use the N.S.A., he didn’t use the C.I.A., he didn’t use the F.B.I., and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ.”
“What is that?” Mr. Spicer continued. “It’s the initials for the British intelligence spying agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, ‘the president needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,’ he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”
In London, outrage quickly followed. “It’s complete garbage, it’s rubbish,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former chairman of Parliament’s intelligence committee, told BBC News.