The chatter in Washington in recent weeks has focused particularly around one big question: Has President Donald Trump been taping his conversations in the White House?
Speculation over this topic was kicked off by the president himself just days after he fired FBI Director James Comey in May. After an anonymously sourced account that Trump asked for Comey’s “loyalty” at a private dinner leaked to the New York Times, Trump tweeted one morning that Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
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 was more than a month ago, and since then the White House has been repeatedly asked whether President Trump has been recording his conversations, à la Richard Nixon’s infamous Oval Office taping system — and they didn’t answer.
But on Thursday, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs and Shannon Pettypiece confirmed the expectations of many by reporting that, “according to a person familiar with the matter,” Trump in fact does not have tapes, and instead sent his tweet “in a strategic fashion to ensure that Comey told the truth.”
And then the president himself weighed in:
...whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
Trump was so vague about the topic in the first place that it was long speculated he doesn’t have tapes at all — and that instead, this was some sort of odd attempted bluff.
But it was a tremendously important question. The existence of any tapes could have had momentous legal ramifications, because tapes make damn good evidence.
After all, the Watergate scandal truly spiraled out of control for Nixon when investigators discovered that he had taped thousands of hours’ worth of his private discussions’ with aides. A combination of investigative, congressional, and judicial pressure forced the handover of the tapes. They proved to contain damning revelation after damning revelation, and eventually resulted in Nixon’s political demise.
Alternatively, if Comey’s testimony was false as Trump has claimed, tapes could have theoretically vindicated Trump and expose Comey to perjury charges. (Asked about this possibility during his Senate testimony, Comey said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”)
Why it seemed like there probably weren’t tapes
It’s difficult to imagine that any president of the United States would be so stupid as to record his conversations with aides, since Nixon’s decision to do so went down as one of the greatest self-owns in American political history.
Then again, throughout his business career, Trump has had a long history of secretly recording his phone calls with people, as the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote last month.
More recently, however, Trump seems to have had a habit of making a different play — of bluffing that he has tapes that will supposedly prove him right in some dispute or another, in an effort to get his opponent to back down.
For instance, two New York Times reporters who covered the 2016 presidential campaign have separate accounts of Trump claiming that he was misquoted in a story and insisting that he had a tape to back him up. In both cases, the reporters say, Trump curiously failed to produce the tape.
Personal anecdote: Candidate Trump once said he had taped a call with me, after disputing how he was quoted. I asked to hear it. Never did.— Trip Gabriel (@tripgabriel) June 9, 2017
This happened to me as well. He always acted as if he was recording it. https://t.co/PX5UZWavZA— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) June 9, 2017
So it was immediately clear that Trump’s tape threat could be a bluff designed to get potential witnesses like Comey to question their own recollection of events, fearing that an indisputable tape would come forward and prove them wrong.
By Comey’s account, however, he reacted in the opposite manner. After Trump’s tweet about tapes, he testified that he “woke up in the middle of the night” because it hadn’t dawned on him that “there might be corroboration for our conversation” — corroboration that could prove his own side of the story correct.
This, Comey says, spurred him to leak the content of one of his memos documenting his conversation with Trump to a reporter, through an intermediary. It was this leak — the leak Trump that had asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation — that prompted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to recuse himself from the case and appoint Bob Mueller as special counsel. So Trump’s threat appears to have backfired.
Perhaps the most convincing argument against the tapes’ existence, though, was the fact that in this notoriously leaky White House, nothing about a taping system leaked to the press.