Making stuff up has its advantages–nobody knows if you really mean it or not. In Trump’s latest “is it true?” episode, the president implied that he has tapes of conversations with former FBI Director James Comey.
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
When candidate Trump tweeted that he might “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz, everyone took it as hardball politics. You can’t take Trump literally, but you have to take him seriously, they said. But as president, you have to take Trump a little bit literally, otherwise, we might end up in a war over a misunderstanding, right? (Don’t answer that.)
Comey told friends that Trump invited him to dinner, and asked three times to “pledge his loyalty” to the president. the New York Times reported. For a president to ask the head of the nation’s independent law enforcement agency to pledge his personal loyalty is improper, to say the least. For him to do it at a private dinner, face to face, in the midst of an investigation that could potentially embroil the president himself, is flirting with obstruction of justice should the investigation lead back to Trump.
Then Trump, in perhaps the most brutal firing of a senior administration executive this century, noted in Comey’s termination letter, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation…” At the same time, the White House’s official reasoning (that’s perfectly reasonable) was that Comey has eroded public and lawmakers’ confidence in the FBI, outlined in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation to fire him.
But Trump made liars of them all, by telling NBC News that it was really Russia. With so many spins and lies and stories, how can we know who is telling the truth?
Tapes–or digital recordings, more likely and more accurately–would be extremely helpful. If they exist, in any form, Congress will want them, and in fact must have them. The Washington Post conveniently chronicled lawmakers’ statements on the Sunday news show circuit.
“If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a former federal prosecutor, said “it’s probably inevitable” that such recordings would need to be handed over to Congress and predicted that they would be subpoenaed. Asked on “Fox News Sunday” about Trump’s decision to set up a taping system, Lee called it “not necessarily the best idea.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that if such tapes exist, “the president should turn them over immediately.”
“To destroy them would be a violation of law. But he should turn them over to Congress and to the investigators,” Schumer told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “If there are no tapes, he should apologize to both Jim Comey and the American people for misleading them.”
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said his panel or another congressional committee “absolutely” would subpoena Trump for such recordings.
“We have got to make sure that these tapes, if they exist, don’t mysteriously disappear,” Warner said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he would “absolutely” call for subpoenas of any such recordings.
The question is how far will Congress to to determine whether, in fact, tapes do exist. And if they do exist, how far will Congress go to get them. This isn’t Watergate, after all. There’s currently no evidence, never mind proof, that Trump did anything to collude with Russians as they attempted to influence our election. Several Trump associates, most notably fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, might end up in hot water–but the part about Comey assuring Trump he was personally not under investigation seems to be true.
The president appears to be upping the ante again and again, forcing Congress to act as if there is an active criminal investigation of the president. He’s pushing them to act like this is indeed Watergate. Possibly this is to create such outrage among his (many) detractors that they move too quickly, and too soon, and certainly fail. That would put the whole Russia thing behind Trump, making it into the liberal equivalent of birtherism.
But if there are tapes, eventually Congress is going to want them, and eventually they will do whatever they can to get them. If the tapes don’t exist, at some point, Trump will be forced to admit that, thereby admitting he promulgated a lie to bully Comey. That’s despicable, but not criminal.
This whole thing may come back to Rod Rosenstein’s lap (I don’t envy him). He could appoint a special prosecutor, to investigate the possibility of White House tapes, under the aegis of the Russia investigation as a whole. But that will be a (probably losing) fight and an enormous distraction.
It’s better to let the Senate Intelligence Committee continue with its work, and focus on selecting Comey’s successor. But from what we all know of Trump, he rarely takes the path of least resistance, and almost never leaves well enough alone.
We might now spend the next year arguing over the possible existence of White House tapes, only to learn that they may have, at one point, existed, if they ever existed–but they don’t, in fact, exist a year from now. In fact, I expect that’s exactly how Trump wants it to be: inconclusive and as clear as mud.