Wiretapping the president of the United States is a serious charge, and overnight this is exactly what presidential spokesperson Sean Spicer has alleged the UK has been doing (and just as we were about to publish this article the US reportedly made a formal apology for saying so). Meanwhile Trump himself has been backtracking, claiming that his Tweet suggesting wiretapping had the term in inverted commas so it wasn’t literal.
This is correct, but other Tweets make very specific allegations:
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
This doesn’t make any mention of British involvement but it’s disingenuous to wriggle. This may or may not be a surprise to many. Meanwhile GCHQ has denied any involvement in any “wiretapping” and it’s hard to find anyone outside Trump’s immediate circle and Fox News or Breitbart who takes the charge seriously.
What does wiretapping even mean?
It’s tempting to dismiss the entire charge out of hand, but it’s important to remember that apparently friendly nations have engaged in surveillance before. Only four years ago Angela Merkel was asking serious questions about whether the US was bugging her mobile. She asked the question in private and did not have a history of fulminating on Twitter, so added to the furore over the Edward Snowden revelations at the time, she didn’t arouse the same levels of ridicule. Obama was president at the time.
And yet nobody with any weight is taking the current batch of allegations seriously. The evidence doesn’t appear to stack up and that’s no surprise as even the accuser, Trump himself, has given a rambling interview in which he appears to concede he doesn’t know what he means by “wiretap”.
There are lessons to be taken away from this. First it reinforces the idea that the president is going to continue making announcements on Twitter, many of which will be unguarded, for the foreseeable future.
Second, only an opinion, but: should the president of one of the most powerful nations in the world really be complaining about his vulnerability to surveillance while he continues to use a civilian-grade Android phone rather than something his own intelligence service might recommend?