Donald Trump is doing exactly what Russia wants him to by claiming Barack Obama used the GCHQ intelligence agency to spy on the President during his election campaign, a former British ambassador to the US has warned.
Sir Peter Westmacott said officials in the administration were “peddling falsehoods”, which risked damaging the US-UK relations in a way that was a “gift to our enemies”.
The claims, which President Trump repeated on Friday and have been strenuously denied by the UK, originally emanated from an interview with a former CIA official on RT — the Russian propaganda news channel.
And asked on Monday morning whether the claims were straight from the “Russian playbook”, Sir Peter agreed.
“What we do know is that the Russians are engaged in information warfare against the US and the UK and a lot of Western democracies,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
“They have peddled stories in the past which have turned out to be not true, which were deliberately put out by them.
“They have been involved in producing leaked material to embarrass different politicians in the US
“So if the story comes from RT it would indeed be part of the fairly standard Russian playbook with which all Western democracies are having to cope.”
Sir Peter, who retired last year, urged foreign secretary Boris Johnson to take up the issue when he visits Washington later this week.
The intervention comes after White House press secretary Sean Spicer cited a claim by a Fox News analyst that Obama had used British spies to bug Trump Tower.
The claim brought a rare public denial by GCHQ which described the claims as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous”.
Downing Street said it had secured an assurance that the allegation would not be repeated.
But at a visibly awkward news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, Mr Trump said only that Mr Spicer had just been quoting retired judge Andrew Napolito, a Fox News commentator.
“We said nothing,” Trump told a reporter. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
Sir Peter said senior US officials were well aware the president was playing a “dangerous game” which revolved around Mr Trump’s “famous reluctance to admit mistakes” combined with his suspicion of intelligence agencies.
“The intelligence relationship between Britain and America is unique and precious,” he wrote in the Guardian. “It is based on unquestioned mutual trust, between operatives and politicians on each side of the Atlantic,” he said.
“That is something both countries have taken for granted since the Second World War.
Photographers: Can we get a handshake?
Merkel (to Trump): Do you want to have a handshake?
Trump: *no response*
Merkel: *makes awkward face* pic.twitter.com/ehgpCnWPg7
— David Mack (@davidmackau) March 17, 2017
“Gratuitously damaging it by peddling falsehoods and then doing nothing to set the record straight would be a gift to our enemies they could only dream of.”
The New York Times described the allegations as having provoked as a “rare public dispute with America’s closest ally.”
It added that a “livid” Britain had reacted angrily.
America’s relationship with another European ally, Germany, was also put under the microscope as Trump and Merkel failed to shake hands following a joint press conference.
However, Germany’s largest tabloid Bild said the meeting “could have been a lot worse,” while Süddeutsche Zeitung described it as “not warm, but not distant.”