After a bizarre few weeks of obfuscation by the White House, President Donald Trump finally admitted Thursday that he has no “tapes” of then-FBI Director James Comey.
Like his initial suggestion that he might have “tapes” of their meetings, the admission he did not came through Trump’s preferred medium: Twitter.
…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
This storyline kicked off shortly after the President abruptly fired his FBI director on May 9. Set off by subsequent press reports that Trump privately asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump publicly warned Comey that he “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’” of their one-on-one interactions.
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
The ploy backfired in spectacular fashion.
Trump’s cryptic tweet about “tapes” had the ironic effect of unleashing a series of events that now imperil his presidency. Out of concern that the President would “lie” about their discussions, Comey provided a law professor friend with contemporaneous memos he kept of their one-one-one interactions. As the New York Times would report, the memos described Trump asking Comey for loyalty and to quash the investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Days after the existence of the Comey memos leaked, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel overseeing the federal probe into Russia’s election interference. Comey’s memos have since been turned over to Mueller’s office
As Comey recently testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he leaked them with the express hope that they would “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
The ousted FBI director also famously told the Senate that he hoped Trump made recordings of these conversations in order to corroborate his account. As he said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
As senior lawmakers publicly pressed the White House to release the tapes, Trump’s staff refused to comment on whether they or any sort of Oval Office recording system existed. Pressure for an answer from the administration reached a crescendo this week. The House Intelligence Committee had asked White House Counsel Don McGahn to confirm whether or not they existed by tomorrow, June 23.
Trump allies like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were dropping hints to the press that the tapes did not exist.
“I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,” Gingrich told the Associated Press in a report out Thursday. “He’s not a professional politician. He doesn’t come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I’ll outbluff you.’”
Though this gambit did not succeed, Trump absolved himself of responsibility for manufacturing this story line in his latest tweets, leaving open the possibility that another individual may have created “tapes” of his conversations with Comey.