Washington (CNN)On May 12, just three days after he fired James Comey as the FBI director, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Like many of Trump’s tweets, this one immediately came to dominate the political conversation. Did he actually have a secret recording system in the White House? If not, why say it?
And, like many of Trump’s tweets, it produced a chain reaction of events that backfired on Trump. The threat — I guess that’s the best way to describe what Trump did — of the existence of recordings spurred Comey to pass along memos he had written detailing his conversations with Trump to a friend, with the express goal of them being leaked and, hopefully, triggering a special counsel to be appointed.
So, there’s a direct line between Trump’s odd “tapes” tweet and the appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel to oversee the probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. That is, almost by definition, cutting off your nose to spite your face.
But, now, there’s even more to the Trump tweet on “tapes” of his Comey conversations. Why? Because we have Comey and Trump saying absolutely contradictory things about the nature of those meetings and phone calls.
Comey said Thursday that Trump asked him directly for his loyalty and implied strongly that his job might well depend on it. Trump, via his lawyer Marc Kasowitz, insisted that never happened. Comey said under oath on Thursday that Trump made clear to him he’d like the federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn to end. Trump has flatly denied that; “No, no. Next question,” he said when asked about the Comey allegation on Flynn.
The easiest way to make this something other than a “he said, he said” situation is for Trump to authorize the release of any and all recorded conversations with Comey — if, of course, they exist.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said in his testimony before the Senate intelligence committee Thursday. At another point, he added: “The President surely knows if there are tapes. If there are, my feelings aren’t hurt. Release the tapes.”
All of which makes the White House response to the question of whether a recording system exists all the more troubling. Asked Thursday about the possibility, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she had “no idea” if there was a taping system in the White House. When a reporter questioned whether Sanders could find out the answer to that question, she joked: “Sure, I’ll try to look under the couches.”
That response is broadly consistent with how the White House has played this story since Trump’s initial tweet. “The President has nothing further to add on that,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said about the possibility of a taping system in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s tweet.
And Trump himself hasn’t shed any more light on the tweet, either.
“Well, that I can’t talk about,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News last month. “I won’t talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest. And I hope he will be.”
Given Comey’s testimony — under oath — that stone-walling strategy is no longer sustainable. At least one person in the White House — HINT: His initial are DJT — knows whether or not the President has been secretly taping phone calls and meetings.
If such tapes exist, they need to be heard by both the congressional committees looking into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election and by Mueller’s investigators. They are the one thing that could provide definitive evidence of whether Trump or Comey is telling the truth about their interactions.
If the tapes don’t exist, we need to know that, too.
Past is usually prologue. If so, Trump and his senior staff will bunker down on the issue — simply refusing to say anything either way about the existence of a recording system. At which point the ball will be in the hands of Congress and Mueller to get the tapes — if any tapes actually exist.
The Trump tweet on “tapes” is now a central part of the investigation into what exactly happened between he and Comey. And that’s not going to change until we get a clear answer on whether they actually exist — and, if they do, what’s on them.