The aftermath of President Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last Tuesday led to a whirlwind of news — driven in large part by the White House’s constantly shifting story about why Comey was actually fired, as well as Trump’s own contradictory comments about the matter.
But one comment in particular could have serious implications for Trump and the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
In a thinly veiled threat to Comey on Friday, Trump said if Comey starts leaking juicy details to the press, then “tapes” of their conversations might leak as well.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
That didn’t sit too well with lawmakers in Congress. Doing their best Jerry McGuire impression, leaders on the Hill called on Trump to show them the tapes.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos to say Congress would “absolutely” subpoena the tapes, “if they exist.” And if they do, he and other lawmakers want “to make sure the tapes are preserved” and don’t “mysteriously disappear.”
Warner was not alone. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said if the tapes exist, then it’s “inevitable” the White House would have to cough them up. “If, in fact, there are such recordings, I think those recordings will be subpoenaed and I think they will probably have to turn them over,” he said.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) was blunt in his own assessment to NBC’s Meet the Press: “You can't be cute about tapes. If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over.” He said he doubts there actually are tapes, but that it’s up to the White House “to clear the air.”
But the White House apparently wants the air to remain unclear. When asked about Trump’s “tapes” tweet, White House press secretary Sean Spicer flatly stated that “the president has nothing further to add on that.”
Let’s pause for a second to consider how incredible this new development really is.
First, the president has essentially painted himself into a corner here. Either he has tapes — which, if subpoenaed, his administration must hand over to Congress — or he doesn’t, and he gets caught in yet another absurd false claim.
But it may not be as absurd as it sounds — because it turns out that, as the Washington Post reports, Trump has a history of recording secret conversations.
In fact, people who worked for him usually assumed any chat with him was effectively public. The Wall Street Journal cites three former employees who claim they personally saw Trump tape conversations before he was president. So it looks like the existence of tapes is not out of the realm of possibility.
Second, Trump’s firing of Comey was already drawing comparisons to President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. But rather than try to downplay those fairly damning comparisons, Trump apparently decided instead to publicly suggest that he might have tape recordings of secret conversations in the White House. That’s ... probably not the best way to get people to stop talking about Watergate. After all, it was Nixon’s refusal to turn over his secret tapes to Congress that played a big part in his resignation.
Finally, Trump received bipartisan condemnation regarding his comments as well as bipartisan calls for the tapes to be handed over, if they do in fact exist. Usually, Trump’s outbursts on Twitter or elsewhere are shrugged off by the GOP, but in this case Republicans seem to be as worried as Democrats on the issue.
And, as expected, Democrats will not let this go. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that his party should block whomever Trump nominates to replace Comey until a special counsel is put in place to oversee the Russia investigation.
That would be hard to do, of course, as Republicans would only need 51 votes to push Trump’s nominee through. Still, the aftereffects of the Comey firing will be felt this week, and this weekend just got things started.
What to look for this week
For those of you who wanted to avoid Trump/Comey/Russia-related news this week, well, you’re out of luck. There are two big events happening that ensure this story isn’t going anywhere for a while:
1) Rod Rosenstein hearing: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the guy Trump told to write the case against Comey, will brief the entire Senate this week. The exact time is still unknown, but it’s going to be a doozy.
After all, the White House originally pinned the Comey firing on Rosenstein and his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That turns out not to have been accurate, but that doesn’t mean Rosenstein should expect any nice treatment during the hearing, particularly from Democrats.
Top Democrats Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin called on Rosenstein to resign if he doesn’t name a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation at the FBI. That will cause some tension because Rosenstein doesn’t see the need for a special counsel, according to sources close to him.
And last week, Comey declined an invitation to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door meeting because — get this — he wants his comments to be public.
Knowing that hearing is coming down the line, they will want Rosenstein to be as clear as possible about what happened with Comey’s ouster, as well as assurance that the Russia investigation continues apace. That way, when Comey is in the hot seat, senators will have a chance to compare and contrast their stories.
2) FBI director nomination: Trump is expected to nominate the next FBI director before he leaves for his first foreign trip as president on Friday. Trump promises that the people he’s considering "are very well known, highly respected, really talented people."
Trump interviewed four candidates for the job on Saturday. They are:
- Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director
- Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-TX), who sits on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, who once served on the Texas Supreme Court and was the state’s attorney general
- Alice Fisher, a former chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division
- Michael Garcia, a former US attorney who served in Manhattan
They represent the first interviews in the entire process, and more candidates are expected to be named later. If the goal is to name someone by Friday, then the administration has given itself a tight window to get this done. And even then, congressional roadblocks — including angry Democrats — remain, as well as bipartisan worries that Trump may use this opportunity to put in a loyalist instead of a truly independent person to lead the FBI.
And that leads to an issue with one of the nominees, John Cornyn. The FBI director is supposed to be apolitical. Should Trump name Cornyn to the position, he would openly be putting a partisan politician in that role. That goes against the past standard. But then again, getting rid of past standards is Trump’s forte.
So it’s yet another week in Trump’s presidency, only this one has some extra oomph to it. The shockwaves continue to reverberate — and they are only expected to get stronger as the week goes on.