WASHINGTON â Ending a month-long guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy, President Donald Trump declared he never made and doesnât have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI Director James Comey,
âWith all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information,â Trump tweeted Thursday, he has âno ideaâ whether there are âtapesâ or recordings of the two menâs conversations. But he proclaimed âI did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.â
That left open the possibility that recordings were made without his knowledge or by someone else. But he largely appeared to close the saga that began in May, just days after he fired Comey, then the head of an investigation into Trump associatesâ ties to Russian officials. Trump has disputed Comeyâs version of a January dinner during which the director said the president had asked for a pledge of loyalty.
Trump responded at that time, via Twitter, that Comey âbetter hope that there are no âtapesâ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!â
That apparently angry missive triggered a series of consequences, each weightier than the last. Comey has suggested that the tweet prompted him to ask an associate to release damaging information to the media. The resulting news reports built pressure on a top Justice Department official to appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation. That special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is now reportedly investigating Trumpâs own actions in a probe that could dog his presidency for the foreseeable future.
Trump showed concern about that situation as well, telling Fox News Channel in an interview that Mueller is âvery, very good friends with Comey which is bothersome.â
Trumpâs declaration now that there are no recordings appears to settle a key dynamic in that investigation: Itâs now the presidentâs word against Comeyâs notes.
Without recordings, Comeyâs version of his conversations with Trump â which he documented at the time, shared with close associates and testified about to Congress â will likely play a key role as prosecutors consider whether Trump inappropriately pressured the lawman to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Investigators will also weigh the credibility of Comey against a president who has shown a wobbly commitment to accuracy.
Trumpâs tweets, old and new, left many perplexed about whether there was motive or strategy behind the whole affair. The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations.
âI think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,â former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant, said before the Thursday tweets. âHeâs not a professional politician. He doesnât come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: âIâll out-bluff you.ââ
Thursdayâs revelation came a day ahead of a deadline to turn over any tapes to the House intelligence committee. The timing drew attention away from the release of the Senateâs health care bill, which the White House hopes can provide Trump a much-needed legislative victory to boost his sagging poll numbers.
But the episode tired Trumpâs defenders and aides, who for weeks have been dodging questions about the recordings. Advisers who speak to Trump regularly have said he had not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. More than a half-dozen aides said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she didnât think Trump regretted the initial tweet. As for his possible motivation, she would only say it was perhaps about âraising the question of doubt in general.â She also could not explain Trumpâs new reference to possible surveillance.
Trumpâs earlier suggestion about tapes evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixonâs downfall in the Watergate scandal. Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime.
Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said, âThis administration never ceases to amaze me.â He said the tweeting is an example of Trumpâs âwillingness to just kind of make things up.â
âItâs remarkable the president was so flippant to make his original tweet and then frankly stonewall the media and the country for weeks,â Warner said. âI donât know how this serves the countryâs interests.â
This is not the first time that Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.
Trump flirted with presidential runs in 1988 and 2000 before abandoning them. He offered to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2004 but never followed through. And his embrace of birtherism, which questioned whether Obama was born in the United States and was eligible to become president, fueled his own political rise. He never produced any evidence.
The pattern has continued since Trumpâs election.
On New Yearâs Eve, he claimed he knew âthings that other people donât knowâ about foreign hacking of last yearâs election, and that the information would be revealed âon Tuesday or Wednesday.â Those days came and went without an answer. In March, he tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge heâs never supported.
Heâs brought trouble to his White House.
At a Senate committee hearing this month, Comey suggested that the presidentâs reference to possible recordings inspired him to disclose to the media through an intermediary a memo he had written of their Oval Office conversation. In that meeting, according to the memo, Trump told Comey he hoped he would let the Flynn investigation go. Comey said he understood that to be a request to drop the probe.
One week after the memo was disclosed, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation into contacts between Russia and the Trump political campaign.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Ken Thomas and Deb Riechmann contributed reporting.
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