The extraordinary public rebuke by the United States’ closest surveillance partner has revealed an emerging characteristic of Donald Trump’s White House: a willingness to antagonize even its allies instead of admitting error.
GCHQ, the UK surveillance mammoth intimately linked to the National Security Agency (NSA), has taken public exception to an allegation repeated from the White House podium that, if true, would probably shatter the Five Eyes intelligence alliance so dear to both Washington and London.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, credulously repeated on Thursday an account by a Fox News pundit, Andrew Napolitano, that GCHQ laundered surveillance on Trump at the behest of Barack Obama. Napolitano, who is in no position to actually know, made the allegation apparently to explain away the emerging consensus, even from senior Republicans on the intelligence committees, that there is no basis to Trump’s claim that Obama ordered that surveillance.
GCHQ practically never responds to stories about its operations. But the implications of this one are severe. There would be no way for the NSA and GCHQ, which are joined at the hip, to continue their partnership if GCHQ was willing to interfere in the US political process.
On Friday, 10 Downing Street said it had received assurances from the White House that it will not repeat the allegation, which suggests that the White House did not realize the implications of what it said.
The context matters here. Spicer repeated Napolitano’s allegation for the same reason Napolitano made it: to defend Trump’s evidence-free assertion, on 4 March, that Obama had Trump’s team placed under surveillance.
Spicer did so while reading off a long list of news reports, both credible and not, about aspects of surveillance intercepts related to Trump and Russia. Spicer’s implication is that if Trump was wrong – which he did not concede – it was because the journalists calling attention to Trump’s error lack credibility. Not a single credible news account Spicer read supports Trump’s 4 March claim. Napolitano’s did.
The context of Trump’s 4 March claim matters as well. Trump accused Obama of felonious surveillance – presidents cannot legally order their political opponents spied upon – to discredit evidence that Russia sought to aid his election.
That evidence of Russian interference, and the fallout from it, has been endorsed by three US intelligence agencies. It prompted Trump’s national security adviser to resign. It made his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, inquire about enlisting the FBI to refute news reports. It caused his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from official inquiries. And the point of Trump’s claim, unequivocally denied by Obama, is to say all of this is smoke conjured by Trump’s political opponents.
One option always available to the White House is to forthrightly concede Trump was wrong. It has shown no appetite for that. Instead, Trump and his allies have grasped for whatever explanation might keep alive an incendiary accusation – one that is itself an unforced error – without regard for the relationships those explanations damage.
Even now, with GCHQ and 10 Downing Street angry, the White House is stopping short of an apology. “Ambassador Kim Darroch and Sir Mark Lyall expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and General McMaster. Mr Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story,” according to the current White House line.
The White House has been here before. Mexico’s president cancelled a state visit after Trump kept claiming Mexico would pay for a border wall. Trump invented an attack in Sweden in order to bolster his dubious claim that refugees are incipient terrorists. He antagonized another Five Eyes ally, Australia, over refugee policy as well.
Trump, like all recent presidents, will soon confront a major domestic or international crisis. It may be a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a foreign threat, a military debacle. At that point, the US and the world will, as it does, look to the White House for a truthful account of what has happened, both to understand the US assessment of the danger and for reassurance. Yet Trump’s behavior has drained away the very credibility he attempts to preserve.