GOP Senators: It's Time for Facts on Comey, Tapes, Russia

GOP Senators: It's Time for Facts on Comey, Tapes, Russia
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For President Trump, a decision on whether to remain silent about his Friday White House “tapes” tweet, as well as the content of his classified conversations with Russian officials last week, may not be his alone to make.

Trump’s national security adviser refuted news accounts published Monday night that the president shared highly sensitive intelligence tied to an Islamic State terrorism plot with Russian officials in the Oval Office last week.

“I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus listened to the brief statement from a nearby office.

The general, who did not answer any questions, said the president discussed civil aviation threats with the Russians, but did not disclose “intelligence sources or methods” or non-public military operations. “The story that came out as reported is false,” he said.

But reporting by the Washington Post, the New York Times and BuzzFeed News, along with Trump’s tweet Friday mentioning “tapes” after he fired FBI Director James Comey, raised puzzlement among lawmakers from both parties and prompted Capitol Hill requests to the White House for records … and answers. 

On multiple fronts over six days, Trump’s rhetoric and actions attracted lawmakers’ attention and focused their scrutiny more intently on Russia, despite the president’s public agitation that FBI and congressional investigators are exploring allegations of collusion he insists are baseless.

The president’s unilateral decisions – firing Comey on Tuesday, complaining to NBC News about the Russia investigations as a reason for the sudden dismissal, and sharing secrets hours later with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – are encouraging lawmakers to keep digging, either with West Wing cooperation or without.

Republican lawmakers joined their Democratic colleagues in seeking additional White House information, including records such as tapes or recordings, to assist their investigations.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined multiple times Monday to say whether the president would cooperate with Congress. Lawmakers have asked for information about whether Trump has a taping system and used it to capture conversations without the knowledge of others since his inauguration. “The president has nothing further on that,” Spicer said. 

Democratic lawmakers have asked the White House in writing for any tapes of Trump conversations with Comey, plus former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired Feb. 13, as well as Russians Lavrov and Kislyak.

Republican senators, reacting initially to Trump’s mention of “tapes” in relation to Comey, and later to Monday’s reports about the president’s conversations with Russian officials, predicted any tapes or digital recordings, if they exist, are unlikely to be kept away from public scrutiny.

Former officials who served President Obama in the West Wing said he did not have a taping system and said he did not record audio of conversations with advisers and VIPs. “Any system that Trump has set up would be new,” one former Obama aide, speaking on background, told RealClearPolitics.

In his New York business, Trump taped conversations as a form of self-protection and insurance. Whether he added taping methods or a recording system to his presidential conduct is unclear.

Official presidential records in any format and created in any location must be preserved by the White House as government property and can be subpoenaed by Congress and the courts under provisions of the Presidential Records Act.

For that reason, GOP lawmakers have joined Democratic colleagues, including Reps. John Conyers and Elijah Cummings, in casting wary eyes at Trump and his erratic West Wing operation.

"The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order. It's got to happen," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told reporters.

“Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening. The shame of it is there’s a really good national security team in place and there are good, productive things that are underway through them and through others. But the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline … creates a worrisome environment," he said.

Shortly before McMaster’s brief defense of Trump in front of the West Wing on Monday, Corker told USA Today, "To compromise a source is something that you just don't do. …That's why we keep the information that we get from intelligence sources so close ... to prevent that from happening." 

Corker and other GOP senators said they were surprised by Trump’s tweet on Friday, in which he directed an apparent warning at the former law enforcement official he fired.

"I think the White House needs to be perfectly clear about a matter like that. … Needs to come clean on that immediately,” Corker added. Any decisions about congressional subpoenas should wait “a few days” to gauge how the White House responds, he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Richard Nixon’s downfall after the disclosure and subsequent battle over White House tapes should give any president serious pause.

“I think there should have been a lesson learned from Nixon," he told RCP. If Trump has tapes of official conversations, “there’s no way that’s going to be kept secret.”

Sen. James Lankford, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the president was encouraging an impression that he secretly tapes conversations, which could effectively muzzle candid advice and discussion.

“I think he should clarify that [tweet] just to be able to tell anyone who's in the Oval Office whether they're being recorded," Lankford said. When asked about potential subpoenas, the Oklahoma senator said the president first “needs to clarify.” 

If Trump asked Comey about whether he would be “loyal” to him during a January dinner at the White House, as reported, and a recording of that conversation was created, Congress would “want to hear those tapes” as relevant to why the president terminated Comey, Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, told RCP.

“If he has tapes, we should listen to them,” Rubio said.

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

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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