It is over two weeks since Donald Trump first tweeted his still unsubstantiated allegations that Barack Obama had tapped his phones during the presidential election campaign. Since then, the chairs of both the Senate and House intelligence committees have said they don’t believe the charge. But the story is now moving on from farce to serious political drama.
In an attempt to limit the damage, the president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, tried to argue that the quotation marks Trump put around the allegations of phone-tapping in some of his tweets on 4 March meant they weren’t serious.
The story took a significant further twist last Thursday when Spicer, speaking from a podium carrying the seal of the president of the United States, repeated an account from a Fox News commentator alleging that, instead of using one of the US agencies, Obama had asked GCHQ in Cheltenham to tap Trump’s phones on his behalf.
Anyone with any knowledge of the intelligence world knew the suggestion was absurd. First, the US president does not have the power to order the tapping of anyone’s phone. Second, the idea of the British foreign secretary signing a warrant authorising such an intrusion into domestic US politics was unthinkable. GCHQ broke its traditional silence and moved quickly to dismiss the allegation as “utterly ridiculous”. No 10 followed suit soon afterwards.
Nonsense it was, but the context was unsettling. Some of the intelligence behind current FBI investigations into contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials, and into the hacking of Democratic party emails, is reported to have come from British sources. Then there is the dossier prepared by a former British intelligence official, Christopher Steele, which itself made a series of unsubstantiated allegations about Trump’s links to Russia.
So London was understandably keen to kill off any suggestion, however nonsensical, that British intelligence agencies had been acting against the new president’s interests. The diplomatic machinery began whirring, and the press were briefed that Trump’s national security adviser had apologised to his British opposite number. In parallel, the British ambassador spoke directly to Spicer to ensure there would be no repetition of the allegation.
There the story might have ended. But it was given fresh legs when Trump, at a press conference with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, last Friday, ducked a question about the veracity of the allegations, saying that anyone who had an issue with them should talk to Fox News – which promptly issued a statement of its own saying it didn’t believe them. Spicer then denied that any apology had been made, or that the administration had anything to regret.
Senior US figures including Barack Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice have criticised the implication of the US’s “closest ally”. They know this is a dangerous game revolving around the pressure on White House officials to substantiate Trump’s allegations, the president’s famous reluctance to admit mistakes, and his suspicion of intelligence agencies and their product.
Dangerous it is. The intelligence relationship between Britain and the US is unique and precious. It is critical to our shared efforts to counter terrorism, Russian aggression, the cyber-attacks of China, the nuclear threat from North Korea and much else. It is based on unquestioned mutual trust between operatives and politicians on each side of the Atlantic.
That is something both countries have taken for granted since the second world war. 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 foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is heading to Washington this week. He needs to make very clear that this is not a game.