Trump Creates Tempest With Tweet About 'Tapes'

Trump Creates Tempest With Tweet About 'Tapes'
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Has President Trump secretly taped conversations in the White House?

Few in Washington would have thought to raise that question at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Friday, but the president raised the possibility in a tweet aimed at former FBI Director James Comey

Adding to the intrigue, especially among Democratic lawmakers who asked the White House for explanations, were a string of non-denial, “No comment” answers offered by Trump and his spokesman. 

During a week in which some observers likened Trump’s behavior to Richard Nixon, whose abuses of power were captured by a secret taping system that eventually led to his resignation, the president’s mention of “tapes” and then his refusal to deny taping people in the White House was stunning.

“Well, that I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that,” the president told interviewer Jeanine Pirro of Fox News, known as Judge Jeanine. “All I want is for Comey to be honest. And I hope he will be. I’m sure he will be. I hope.”

“The president has no further comment,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. “The tweet speaks for itself.”

Was the president trying to threaten the man he fired on Tuesday to keep silent? “That’s not a threat,” Spicer said.

Is there a recording of a mano-a-mano, Jan. 27 White House dinner conversation between Trump and Comey, described by the president? “I am not aware of that,” the press secretary said.

Did the president press Comey more than once during that dinner to say he would be “loyal” to Trump, as reported by the New York Times?

"No, I didn't, but I don't think it would be a bad question to ask,” the president told Pirro. “I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the U.S., is important. You know, it depends on how you define loyalty, number one. Number two, I don't know how it got out there [in the news media] because I didn't ask that question."

Later Friday, Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Comey turned down an invitation to appear before the panel next week. Whether the fired director agrees to discuss matters at a later date was uncertain. 

Why did the president seek assurances from Comey that he was not a target of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election?

“He wanted clarity,” Spicer responded on Friday.

The president was not alone.

Democratic lawmakers, including members of investigatory committees, pelted the West Wing with written questions within hours of Trump’s “tapes” tweet.

Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating the Russia connections to last year’s election, called Trump’s tweet “extraordinary.”

“If the president has `tapes’ of his conversations with Director Comey, it is because the president himself made them. For a president who baselessly accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping him, that Mr. Trump would suggest that he, himself, may have engaged in such conduct is staggering,” he said in a statement. 

“The president should immediately provide any such recordings to Congress or admit, once again, to have made a deliberately misleading and in this case threatening statement,” he added.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the White House in writing to produce any tapes to which Trump referred.

The Illinois lawmaker asked for confirmation of any taping system in any location, and any tapes or recordings of White House conversations, particularly with Comey, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump fired on Feb. 13, and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. 

Democratic Reps. John Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee and Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight panel said Trump’s rhetoric, tweets and reported actions "raise the specter of possible intimidation and obstruction of justice." They asked the White House to respond by May 25 to describe the existence of any secret tapes, a taping system and copies of audio recordings.

As a New York businessman, Trump was accustomed to safeguarding his public relations and legal interests by taping interchanges with the consent of other parties, including some who taped him simultaneously. Whether Trump imported that practice to his presidency was left unclear on Friday.

What is clear is that Trump broached the protection of taped conversations in the context of his firing of Comey. And he has been obsessed with U.S. government surveillance aimed at Russian targets last year that swept some of his associates, including Michael Flynn, into the intelligence net.

In the modern presidency, even the preservation of delicate diplomatic telephone conversations with foreign heads of state involves the use of trained note takers, not audio recordings.

With journalists and authors, in particular, Trump’s caution as a business tycoon prior to his life in politics was memorable, if also par for the course inside New York executive suites.

Litigious himself, and familiar with being the target of litigation, Trump did not want his words mischaracterized or invented. Taping conversations became a showy form of insurance.

Biographer Gwenda Blair, speaking with RealClearPolitics, recalled that Trump “routinely pulled out his own tape recorder when being interviewed by reporters, including me.”

“I had a tape recorder, but the implication was this was a precaution to make double sure I quoted him accurately,” said Blair, author of “The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President.”

“And clearly it was meant as a pre-emptive and intimidating move,” she added, “as were the boilerplate letters I got from his lawyers threatening me with legal consequences if I wrote anything libelous or inaccurate.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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