Last Friday, several days after firing FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump tweeted something that continues to invite confusion and speculation on Capitol Hill and in the press corps:
Did Trump really tape his conversations with Comey, or was he bluffing? If Trump does have tapes, would they really vindicate him—or would they support the story, reported by The New York Times, that he asked Comey for a loyalty pledge?
We now know that at least one person was keeping records of their conversations: Comey himself.
The Times reported Tuesday that, according to a memo Comey wrote immediately after meeting with Trump in February, the president had asked him to end the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had misled the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and made himself vulnerable to Russian blackmail. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump allegedly told Comey. As the Times notes:
The existence of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.... The memo was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence an ongoing investigation. An F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.
Whether or not Comey’s notes end up as evidence in court, they will be of great interest to those who are leading investigations into the Trump campaign’s involvement in Russia’s subversion of the U.S. election—including in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Comey has declined to testify to a closed Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, but on Tuesday, as news broke about Comey’s memo, Senator Lindsey Graham said he invited Comey to testify before the Judiciary Committee. “I think it would be good for him if he did,” Graham said. “It would be good for the country.”
If Comey consents, the Senate will demand more information about Trump’s alleged appeal for loyalty and his attempt to shut down the Flynn investigation—and that, in turn, will help resolve the ambiguity surrounding the purported tapes. And whether or not tapes exist, or contain any damaging information, the resolution of this ambiguity will be disastrous for Trump.
After Trump fired Comey, it took mere hours for people in the administration and Trump’s inner circle to begin leaking word that Trump’s stated rationale for the decision had been pure pretext, and only 48 hours for Trump to volunteer that, yeah, he was going to fire Comey with or without supporting memos from the Justice Department because he’d grown sick of Comey’s Russia investigation.
By contrast, ever since Trump tried to blackmail Comey into silence, suggesting he’d secretly recorded their conversations, the White House has been relatively consistent, if completely vague. At his daily briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly deflected questions about the tapes by insisting “the president has made it clear” that he “has nothing further” to say on the matter. The president’s own response about the tapes is slightly more revealing than Spicer’s: He doesn’t simply say that he won’t talk about them; he says that he “can’t.”
For a White House as undisciplined as this one, the tape stonewalling scans less as a political position than a legal one. White House counsel Don McGahn, or someone else who understands the potential gravity of the situation, may well have told everyone to keep their mouths shut. If the White House were to acknowledge that there are no tapes, Trump would be caught in a very troubling fabrication to intimidate a witness, but if the White House confirms that tapes exist, Trump would face the legal obligation to preserve them and perhaps even surrender them to Congress.
We know to a near certainty that the White House will come under immense pressure to come clean. If Comey testifies publicly before the Senate, it is likely he will confirm under oath that Trump sought his personal loyalty, thus resolving the mystery of the White House tapes one way or another. Trump might dispute Comey’s claims, but if he doesn’t release any tapes to prove his case, it would suggest either that the tapes don’t exist or that they vindicate Comey. The question at the heart of the tape scandal would tighten from “Do the tapes exist?” to “Did the president lie about the existence of the tapes, or about their content?” That’s a question people working in the White House will feel much more pressure to address than the one they face today.
It strikes me as overwhelmingly likely that the truth lies in one of these two scenarios. But even if Trump has recordings of his conversations with Comey, and they vindicate Trump—as he coyly suggests in his tweet—it is small solace because he will have recorded himself using his power to fire Comey as leverage to discourage an FBI investigation. That is, he will have gathered evidence against himself, documenting his attempt to obstruct justice.
For well over a year now, people have predicted Twitter would be Trump’s political undoing, but for the first time it’s possible to see how it might undo him. Unlike his March tweets baselessly accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping him, Trump’s tweet about a possible Comey tape hasn’t plunged the government into a wasteful, humiliating charade. But that underscores rather than undermines the argument that the Comey tweet is far more damaging.
Trump might have libeled Obama, but he was ultimately, in his inimitably garbled fashion, just passing along false allegations he’d heard on Fox News. The ensuing farce, in which congressional Republicans and members of the administration sought to reverse-engineer a scandal that would give Trump thin cover, was disgraceful for everyone who participated. But it was only undertaken to appease the president and muddy the political consequences to him of having told a terrible lie about his predecessor.
The White House’s recoiling over questions about potential Comey tapes suggests the administration knows that the implications of the tweet are far more severe. In fact, though it wasn’t readily obvious in the swirl of events last week, the tape tweet is proving to be the most damaging Trump tweet of all time.