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Sir Peter Westmacott, writing in the Guardian, has accused the White House of ‘peddling falsehoods’ by suggesting British intelligence spied on Trump Tower
The former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Peter Westmacott, has issued a withering criticism of Donald Trump and his inner circle, accusing them of making absurd, unthinkable and nonsensical claims about the UK’s involvement in alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower that he warns could damage close ties between the two countries.
Writing in the Guardian, Westmacott accuses the White House of not only “peddling falsehoods” that the British intelligence agency GCHQ assisted then president Barack Obama in tapping Trump’s New York phones, but of potentially harming intelligence cooperation across the Atlantic.
His comments come as the Republican chair of the House of Representatives intelligence committee has said he has seen no evidence to back Trump’s claims, and as a Republican member of that panel said the president should apologise to Britain.
“This is a dangerous game,” Westmacott writes. “The intelligence relationship between Britain and America is unique and precious. It is critical to our shared efforts to counter terrorism.”
Westmacott adds that “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 former ambassador’s excoriating remarks are all the more remarkable given that he stepped down from his role as the UK’s representative in Washington as recently as January 2016.
His unrestrained putdown of Trump’s refusal to correct the unsubstantiated wiretapping allegations – which Westmacott ascribes acerbically to the president’s “famous reluctance to admit mistakes” – is a clear indication of the intensity of British anger at having been dragged into what is seen as a controversy entirely of Trump’s own making.
Such a searing attack from a senior former UK diplomat adds to the heat on Trump and his team as the wiretapping furore enters its third and possibly decisive week. The president dropped the bombshell on 4 March, claiming in a tweet that Obama had tapped his phones during the presidential election, and has engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to stand by the charge ever since.
On Monday the powerful intelligence committee of the House will hear testimony from the FBI director, James Comey, and Admiral Mike Rogers, head of GCHQ’s equivalent in the US, the National Security Agency. Both are certain to come under heavy questioning as to whether there is any evidence of wiretapping, or surveillance of any kind, at Trump Tower under Obama’s instruction.
In advance of the key hearing, Trump came under a barrage of fresh criticism on the Sunday political talkshows from members of the House intelligence committee, including those from the president’s own party.
The chairman of the House committee, Republican Devin Nunes, made clear that having read a Department of Justice report into the affair that was delivered to him on Friday, there was no evidence of a physical wiretap on Trump Tower, nor any evidence that the Fisa court that oversees the intelligence agencies had approved any surveillance.
“There was no Fisa warrant that I’m aware of to tap Trump Tower,” Nunes told Fox News Sunday, adding: “I don’t think there is anyone in the White House today that is under any type of surveillance at all.”
Another Republican, Will Hurd, went further and said it was time for Trump to apologise to the UK. The representative, who had a nine-year career as a CIA agent, said it was important to say sorry “for the intimation that the UK was involved in this as well”.
“We need to make sure we are all working together,” he said. “We live in a very dangerous world and we can’t do this alone.”
The incendiary claim that GCHQ conspired with Obama to secretly monitor Trump during the election period may come up in discussions on Tuesday between the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and senior Trump aides. Johnson is due in Washington to attend a global meeting on defeating Islamic State.
In his Guardian column, Westmacott exhorts Johnson to seize the moment and make British displeasure known. “He needs to make very clear that this is not a game,” the former ambassador writes.
The British row erupted last Thursday when the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, cited an unsubstantiated report by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that claimed Obama had used GCHQ to spy on Trump. Fox News later dissociated itself from the allegations, saying there was no evidence for them.
In a highly unusual public intervention from GCHQ, the spy agency’s spokesman called the claims “utterly ridiculous”.
Westmacott, who served as British ambassador to Turkey and France before moving to the US between 2012 and January 2016, underlines the sense of shock in the UK at the wiretapping claims.
“Anyone with any knowledge of the intelligence world knew the suggestion was absurd,” he writes. “First, the president of the United States 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.”
He goes on to stress that the relationship between Britain and the US has been taken for granted since the second world war, based on “unquestioned mutual trust”. He warns that any move to damage it could harm shared efforts to “counter terrorism, Russian aggression, the cyber-attacks of China, the nuclear threat from North Korea and much else”.
Despite the almost universal ridicule and censure Trump has faced, the president continues to stick doggedly to his wiretapping allegations, showing no willingness to apologise to Obama or the British government.
His only concession so far saw Spicer say that the president used “wiretapping” in quotation marks, to signify wider surveillance rather than literal phone taps.
In the course of a press conference with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Friday, Trump praised the Fox News contributor who started the dispute, calling Napolitano a “very talented lawyer”.
He also elicited an expression of bemused pain from Merkel when he tried to joke that “at least we have something in common” – an allusion to his claim that they have both been the victims of US government wiretapping.