WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Thursday he never made and doesn’t have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI Director James Comey, ending a month-long guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information,” Trump said in his latest tweets, he has “no idea” whether there are “tapes” or recordings of the two men’s conversations. But he proclaimed he “did not make, and do not have, any such recordings”.
That left open the possibility that recordings were made without his knowledge or by someone else. But he largely appeared to close the saga that began in May, just days after he fired Comey, then the head of an investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russian officials. Trump has disputed Comey’s version of a January dinner during which the director said the president had asked for a pledge of loyalty.
Trump responded at that time, via Twitter, that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
That apparently angry missive triggered a series of consequences each weightier than the last. Comey has suggested that the tweet prompted him to ask an associate to leak damaging information to the media. The resulting news reports built pressure on a top Justice Department official to appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation. That special counsel is now reportedly investigating Trump’s own actions in a probe that could dog his presidency for the foreseeable future.
Trump’s declaration now that there are no recordings appear to settle a key dynamic in that investigation: It’s now the president’s word against Comey’s notes.
Without recordings, Comey’s version of his conversations with Trump — which he documented at the time, shared with close associates and testified about to Congress — will likely play a key role as prosecutors consider whether Trump inappropriately pressured the lawman to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Investigators will also weigh the credibility of Comey against a president who has shown a wobbly commitment to accuracy.
Thursday’s revelation came a day ahead of a deadline to turn over any tapes to the House intelligence committee. The timing drew attention away from the release of the Senate’s health care bill, which the White House hopes can provide Trump a much-needed legislative victory to boost his sagging poll numbers.
Trump’s tweets, old and new, left many perplexed about whether there was motive or strategy behind the whole affair. The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations.
“I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant, said before the Thursday tweets. “He’s not a professional politician. He doesn’t come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I’ll out-bluff you.’”
Trump’s earlier suggestion about tapes evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal. Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime.
But the episode tired Trump’s defenders and aides, who for weeks have been dodging questions about the recordings. Advisers who speak to Trump regularly have said he had not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. More than a half-dozen aides said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she didn’t think Trump regretted the initial tweet. As for his possible motivation, she would only say it was perhaps about “raising the question of doubt in general”. She also could not explain Trump’s new reference to possible surveillance.
Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said, “This administration never ceases to amaze me.” He said the tweeting is an example of Trump’s “willingness to just kind of make things up”.
“It’s remarkable the president was so flippant to make his original tweet and then frankly stonewall the media and the country for weeks,” Warner said. “I don’t know how this serves the country’s interests.”