In Peter Thiel’s famous formulation, during the campaign the media took Trump literally but not seriously while voters took him seriously but not literally. The British, it turns out, took yesterday’s accusation in the White House briefing room both seriously and literally. This is a big story across the Atlantic this morning, leading the BBC News website as I write this as well as various British papers. Ah well. Soon they’ll learn to take the Trump White House neither seriously nor literally.
I wrote about the core claim here on Wednesday. Andrew Napolitano, Fox News legal analyst, went on “Fox & Friends” and said that three sources were reporting that Obama used Britain’s GCHQ, their analog to the NSA, to spy on Trump. Obama would have known that if he asked the NSA to do that, it would have created a paper trail; so he went to the Brits, allegedly, and asked them to access the NSA database on his behalf. No Obama fingerprints, no foul. That’s par for the course for a quickie segment on Fox but not something you’d expect the president’s spokesman to float during an official briefing. The GCHQ, which rarely comments publicly, put out a statement immediately calling it “nonsense.”
And now there’s an international mess that needs to be cleaned up.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster spoke with his British counterpart on Thursday about press secretary Sean Spicer’s comment from the White House podium about a Fox News report that said British intelligence helped wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, a White House official said Friday.
The official described the conversation as “cordial” where McMaster described Spicer’s comment as “unintentional.”
McMaster also told his counterpart that “their concerns were understood and heard and it would be relayed to the White House.”
The official said there were “at least two calls” from British officials on Thursday and that the British ambassador to the United States called Spicer to discuss the comment.
Assurances have reportedly been made that Napolitano’s claim won’t be repeated, although I’d lay 50/50 odds that Trump will seem credulous about it if it’s mentioned to him in an interview, if only to save face over his Obama/wiretapping claims. (Speaking of which, why didn’t Trump phone Theresa May to apologize instead of outsourcing it to McMaster and Spicer? Right, right, I know — he doesn’t do apologies.) In the meantime, liberals here and abroad are piling on opportunistically. The head of Britain’s Liberal Democrats called Spicer’s remarks “shameful,” saying, “Trump is compromising the vital UK-US security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment.” Our old friend Susan Rice, meanwhile, chimed in with this:
The cost of falsely blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated. And from the PODIUM. https://t.co/lJ1Q1GR3lB
— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) March 17, 2017
The American right won’t be taking any credibility lessons from Susan Rice, thanks, but there’s no denying that conservative sites would have had a field day with Josh Earnest casually floating a theory involving a Republican president masterminding an illegal spy op against the Democratic nominee via GCHQ. Silver lining for Trump, though: If it’s true that he’s unhappy with Spicer’s performance as press secretary, which was reported widely in the first few weeks of the administration but not so much recently, this would be a perfect moment to replace him. Granted, Trump wouldn’t want to tacitly admit error by firing Spicer, but he’s showed already that he’s willing to punish subordinates for bad behavior when he booted Mike Flynn for having misled Mike Pence. It’s possible, though, that Trump liked Spicer’s performance yesterday, as he was zealous in defense of his boss and combative with the dreaded “fake news media.” If he erred in citing the Napolitano report, well, an error committed out of zealous loyalty can surely be forgiven. Paradoxically, Spicer might have improved his job security with yesterday’s finger-pointing at the GCHQ.
By the way, Napolitano has now put his claim about Obama and the GCHQ in writing. A Twitter pal pointed out the very careful phrasing in this passage:
Sources have told Fox News that the British foreign surveillance service, the Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, most likely provided Obama with transcripts of Trump’s calls. The NSA has given GCHQ full 24/7 access to its computers, so GCHQ — a foreign intelligence agency that, like the NSA, operates outside our constitutional norms — has the digital versions of all electronic communications made in America in 2016, including Trump’s. So by bypassing all American intelligence services, Obama would have had access to what he wanted with no Obama administration fingerprints.
“Obama did this” is one thing, “Obama most likely did this” or “Obama would have been able to do it” is another. Is Napolitano backing off his report, however slightly? Also, why isn’t Fox News doing more to promote this bombshell claim? A sensational allegation made by one of its contributors is now at the heart of an international incident and the top headline on FoxNews.com as of 11:15 ET is “CONVINCER-IN-CHIEF: Deal-making Trump says tweaks to health bill have conservatives on board.” A story that involves Obama allegedly spying illegally on Trump with foreign help has an off-the-charts Democratic scandal quotient, the news equivalent of pure crack cocaine for an outlet like Fox. And yet they’re not chasing the story. How come?
Update: McMaster and Spicer didn’t have much to work with in explaining why he said what he said, but they gave it their best shot:
WH official says Spicer and McMaster "explained" to U.K. Ambassador that he was just pointing to media reports not endorsing pic.twitter.com/qJRrtePO5K
— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) March 17, 2017
If it’s now fair game for the U.S. to publicize accusations of wrongdoing by the UK so long as we’re careful not to “endorse” them, what sort of stuff would Theresa May’s press office be within its rights to publicize about Trump?