The bizarre saga of Donald Trump’s wiretapping hoax has taken a turn for the even stranger. Earlier this week I laid out how the president’s effort to pin high crimes on his predecessor without evidence—specifically the allegation that President Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year—was falling apart in public. Our Intelligence Community indicated it wasn’t true, and then Congress began to pile on.
On Wednesday, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, including its notably Trumpophile chair, Rep. Devin Nunes, flatly stated that no wiretapping occurred. This rendered the White House’s tweet-based campaign null and void. The whole self-created debacle had alarming implications for the Trump administration, as I explained:
This is the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships—not high-functioning democratic republics. Neither does any of this inspire confidence that when a genuine crisis hits this White House—as will almost certainly happen eventually—President Trump will possess the self-discipline or grasp on reality to function as the effective leader he must be. If the current White House occupant doesn’t learn from this self-created debacle, even stormier seas are ahead for his presidency—and our country.
Wednesday was a bad day for the White House, but Thursday turned out to be even worse. First, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, sided with his team against the president, explaining forthrightly that “no such wiretap existed.” Then the Senate joined in, with its intelligence committee’s leadership releasing a statement even stronger than its House counterpart. It minced no words:
Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.
In other words, nobody in the Intelligence Community was spying on the Republican candidate or president-elect, period. While it seems highly likely that members of Trump’s inner circle—perhaps even the president himself—wound up on the radar of NSA and other Western spy agencies due to their frequent chats with senior Kremlin officials, in no way were the Americans the intended target of that intelligence collection, which was legal and legitimate under our laws.
By midday Thursday, President Trump was fully exposed before the world, including by upset members of his own party who are clearly frustrated by the White House’s inability to shoot straight on issues of the gravest importance to our national security. It must be particularly frustrating that this distraction is occurring just as his approval rating is finally starting to tick upwards.
Team Trump quickly proceeded to demonstrate its total inability to learn lessons from its errors and decided to publicly double down, yet again. The chosen instrument was Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, whose Thursday afternoon press conference devolved into a complete circus.
Out of the gate, Spicer stated that the president still stands by his allegation of wiretapping, even after both the House and Senate have pronounced it false, then proceeded to initiate verbal fights with journalists, which media outlets have fairly termed wild and angry. Next, Spicer rehashed the increasingly threadbare accusations of the right-wing media, backing up the White House’s claim against President Obama, making no impression on the gathered journalists.
Things went from bad to worse when Spicer cited one especially ridiculous far-right claim verbatim:
On Fox News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement: “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ—what is that? It’s the initials for the British Intelligence Spying Agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, ‘the President needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,’ he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”
As I explained a couple days ago, Napolitano has zero background in intelligence and has no idea what he’s talking about. His accusation against Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, London’s NSA equivalent, was patently absurd, as well as malicious, demonstrating that neither Napolitano nor Fox News have the slightest notion how intelligence works in the real world.
Yet here the White House was publicly endorsing this crackpot theory—and blaming perhaps our closest ally for breaking American laws at the behest of Barack Obama. Our domestic crisis thereby became an international one, for no reason other than the administration has gone global in its efforts to deflect blame from its own stupidity and dishonesty.
This is no small matter. NSA and GCHQ enjoy the most special of special relationships, serving since the Second World War as the cornerstone of the Anglosphere Five Eyes signals intelligence alliance (the others are Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) which defeated Hitler and won the Cold War. This constitutes the most successful espionage alliance in history, and just how close NSA and GCHQ are would be difficult to overstate.
Affectionately calling each other “the cousins,” they interchange personnel and, in the event of disaster—for instance a crippling terrorist attack on agency headquarters—NSA would hand most of its functions over to GCHQ, so that Five Eyes would keep running. It’s long been a source of consternation at Langley that NSA appears to get along better with GCHQ than with CIA. I once witnessed this issue come up in a top-secret meeting with senior officials, in which a CIA boss took an NSA counterpart to task when it became apparent that a piece of highly sensitive intelligence had been shared with “the cousins” before Langley was informed. The NSA senior official’s terse reply silenced the room: “That’s because we trust them.”
Publicly attacking the NSA-GCHQ relationship was therefore a consummately bad idea, particularly by a White House that has already gone so far out of its way to anger and alienate our own spies, and the British reply was one for the record books. Late yesterday, GCHQ issued a remarkable statement:
Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.
American spy services are famously tight-lipped in their public utterances, falling back on “we can neither confirm nor deny” with a regularity that frustrates journalists. And our spooks are positively loquacious compared to British partners, who seldom say anything on the record to the media. Calling out Fox News and the White House in this manner has no precedent, and indicates just how angry British officials are with the Trump administration. For Prime Minister Teresa May, whose efforts to build bridges with the new president have been deeply unpopular at home, this had to be galling.
To make matters worse, this morning the BBC reported that the White House gave in once 10 Downing Street made its displeasure known:
No 10 has been assured the accusation would not be repeated, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said. He said it had been made clear to US authorities the claims were “ridiculous” and should have been ignored.
In political terms, this is an epic smack-down—worthy of the fake wrestling matches the president is so fond of—that will not be forgotten. London was polite enough to register its views privately, unlike the ill-mannered Trumpians, but the message here cannot be missed. Having been called out for his lies by Congress, the president finally went too far and embraced a kooky, nut-fringe conspiracy theory to smear our “cousins” in public.
That simply is “not on” as my British spy friends like to say. Perhaps Donald Trump will show himself capable of learning a lesson from his mistakes, finally. If he does not, more needless damage to our national security and that of our closest allies lies ahead. Taking on American spies is dumb, while egging British spies into a fight is stupid—as the White House just learned, to its pain.
Moreover, none of this has worked as intended, namely to deflect attention away from the president’s murky ties to Moscow. That issue isn’t going away, with a new Fox News poll—which can’t be portrayed as anti-Trump—showing that 66 percent of voters want a Congressional investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the election last year, while 63 percent desire an inquiry into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. At this point, the White House seems unlikely to come up with any diversion that will get those numbers down.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.