President Trump shakes hands with James B. Comey, then the director of the FBI, during a reception in the Blue Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Pool Photo / Getty Images)
For decades in his frequently public private life, Donald Trump’s flare for the dramatic was an asset. Playing to New York’s tabloids and later to a national reality-TV audience, he became a billionaire and a household name and ultimately a political player.
But as president of the United States, Trump’s penchant for showmanship, verbal combat and short-term distractions has invited long-term difficulties.
That weakness was on vivid display Thursday as Trump sought to end a mystery of his own creation — whether he secretly recorded White House conversations with his fired FBI director, James B. Comey. He did not, Trump said.
His latest statement — on Twitter, of course — seemed designed to clean up one of the most damaging backfires of his presidency: a 6-week-long game of tease that began with a tweet, which in turn played a major role in bringing about the appointment of a special counsel who now appears to be looking into obstruction-of-justice allegations against the president. In typical Trump fashion, however, the president closed off one controversy only to start a new one in the process.
Forty-one days after hinting otherwise, Trump tweeted that no, he hasn’t been surreptitiously recording his conversations. Yet the president did not rule out the possibility that recordings exist — with Comey or anyone else. In fact, he seemed to raise the possibility that he believes his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies may be monitoring him.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations,” he wrote.
“But,” he added, “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”
The White House declined to answer additional questions sparked by the tweets. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president’s message was “extremely clear.”
“You guys asked for an answer. He gave you one,” she said.
Trump has shown a penchant for trying to redirect media attention away from unflattering subjects, yet often in ways that prove self-defeating. He decided to finally resolve the tapes issue hours after Senate Republicans released their much-anticipated healthcare bill, a proposal that ran into immediate trouble within the party.
“He’s having fun with the press. He’s playing with the press. This is part of his whole presentation for most of his life, and he isn’t going to stop now,” Stewart Baker, a former National Security Agency general counsel and an expert on national security law, said in an interview.
Nor, it has become clear, can his top advisors and lawyers stop him, despite the political and especially legal jeopardy that Trump has caused himself — not least by the “tapes” tweet directed at the FBI director he fired out of pique with the investigation of possible ties between Russia and his campaign in 2016.
Feuding publicly with Comey in the days after firing him May 9, the president first teased about a secret recording system in the White House, ominously tweeting, “Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
Trump’s motive was itself a mystery, yet at worst his tweet smacked of an attempt to intimidate Comey and obstruct the ongoing investigation. Still, White House officials allowed the question of whether there were recordings to fester for weeks, leaving an opening for Nixonian and, particularly, Watergate comparisons. It was never clear whether his spokespeople were mute at the encouragement of their boss, or because they simply were powerless to get him to end the game.
Trump, who was interviewed only a few times in that period, was eventually asked at a news conference June 9 if tapes existed and whether he would release them. Trump mischievously promised to answer the question, but not right away. Reporters wouldn’t like the answer, he added.
That promise of an answer came days after Comey testified this month before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would welcome the release of any recordings if they existed.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he said.
Comey testified that he decided after the tweet to divulge his own contemporaneous notes of private meetings with Trump, in the hope — subsequently realized — that the Justice Department would name a special counsel for the Russia investigation. That inquiry extends to whether the president sought to obstruct justice by urging Comey to end the FBI inquiry.
Separately, the acting Republican chairman and senior Democrat in charge of the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation formally requested that the White House turn over any recordings of Trump’s conversations with Comey by June 23.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement that Trump’s tweets alone on the eve of the deadline were not enough to satisfy their request for a formal written explanation from the White House counsel.
“If the president’s statement is accurate, it of course raises as many questions as it answers,” Schiff said. Among them: whether Trump was intentionally seeking to mislead the public and silence Comey, and whether he took similar steps to discourage other witnesses from coming forward.
“While I would certainly hope that the president’s most recent statement is true, we will continue to pursue the matter with other witnesses so that the public can be assured that if recordings were ever made, they will be preserved and be made available to the committee and ultimately to the public, as well,” Schiff added.
Sanders sidestepped questions about whether the president meant to suggest that the CIA, FBI or other law enforcement and intelligence agencies might be monitoring Trump’s private conversations.
“He’s concerned with the number of leaks that do come out of our intelligence community. I think all America should be concerned with that,” she said. “There’s public record that talks about surveillance, that talks about unmasking. We know those practices take place.”