Trump ends his tapes tease, but dam­age is done

In a new tweet, he fi­nally says he did not se­cretly record talks with Comey — which poses new ques­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael A. Me­moli

WASH­ING­TON — For decades in his fre­quently public pri­vate life, Don­ald Trump’s flair for the dra­matic was an as­set.

But as pres­i­dent of the United States, Trump’s pen­chant for show­man­ship, ver­bal com­bat and short-term dis­trac­tions has in­vited long-term dif­fi­cul­ties.

That weak­ness was on vivid dis­play Thurs­day as Trump sought to end a mys­tery of his own cre­ation — whether he se­cretly recorded White House con­ver­sa­tions with his fired FBI di­rec­tor, James B. Comey. He did not, Trump said.

His lat­est state­ment — on Twit­ter — seemed de­signed to clean up one of the most dam­ag­ing back­fires of his pres­i­dency: a 6-week­long game of tease that be­gan with a tweet. That, in turn, played a ma­jor role in bring­ing about the ap­point­ment of a spe­cial coun­sel who now ap­pears to be look­ing into ob­struc­tion-of-jus­tice al­le­ga­tions against the pres­i­dent. How­ever, Trump’s tweet Thurs­day closed off one con­tro­versy only to start a new one.

Forty-one days af­ter hint­ing oth­er­wise, Trump tweeted that no, he hasn’t been sur­rep­ti­tiously record­ing his con­ver­sa­tions. Yet the pres­i­dent did not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that record­ings ex­ist — with Comey or any­one else. In fact, he seemed to raise the pos­si­bil­ity that he be­lieves his own in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies may be mon­i­tor­ing him.

“With all of the re­cently re­ported elec­tronic sur­veil­lance, in­ter­cepts, un­mask­ing and il­le­gal leak­ing of in­for­ma­tion, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or

record­ings of my con­ver­sa­tions,” he wrote.

“But,” he added, “I did not make, and do not have, any such record­ings.”

The White House de­clined to an­swer ad­di­tional ques­tions sparked by the tweets. Deputy Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said the pres­i­dent’s mes­sage was “ex­tremely clear.”

“You guys asked for an an­swer. He gave you one,” she said.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to fi­nally re­solve the tapes is­sue came hours af­ter Se­nate Repub­li­cans re­leased their much-an­tic­i­pated health­care bill — a pro­posal he ini­tially de­clined to en­dorse as it ran into im­me­di­ate trou­ble within the party, though he did so hours later.

“He’s hav­ing fun with the press. He’s play­ing with the press. This is part of his whole pre­sen­ta­tion for most of his life, and he isn’t go­ing to stop now,” said Stewart Baker, a for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency gen­eral coun­sel and an ex­pert on na­tional se­cu­rity law.

Nor, it has be­come clear, can his top ad­vi­sors and lawyers stop him, de­spite the po­lit­i­cal and es­pe­cially le­gal jeop­ardy that Trump has caused him­self — not least by the “tapes” tweet di­rected at the FBI di­rec­tor he fired out of pique with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble ties be­tween Russia and his cam­paign in 2016.

Feud­ing pub­licly with Comey in the days af­ter fir­ing him May 9, the pres­i­dent first teased about a se­cret record­ing sys­tem in the White House, omi­nously tweet­ing, “Comey bet­ter hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our con­ver­sa­tions be­fore he starts leak­ing to the press!”

Some viewed his tweet as an at­tempt to in­tim­i­date Comey and inf lu­ence the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Still, White House of­fi­cials al­lowed the ques­tion of whether there were record­ings to fes­ter for weeks, leav­ing an open­ing for com­par­isons to Water­gate. It was never clear whether his spokes­peo­ple were mute at the en­cour­age­ment of their boss, or be­cause they sim­ply were pow­er­less to get him to end the game.

Asked a month later if tapes ex­isted and whether he would re­lease them, Trump mis­chievously promised to an­swer the ques­tion, but not right away. Re­porters wouldn’t like the an­swer, he added.

That prom­ise of an an­swer came days af­ter Comey tes­ti­fied this month be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that he would wel­come the re­lease of any record­ings if they ex­isted.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he said.

Comey tes­ti­fied that he de­cided af­ter the tweet to di­vulge his own con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous notes of pri­vate meet­ings with Trump, in the hope — sub­se­quently re­al­ized — that the Jus­tice De­part­ment would name a spe­cial coun­sel for the Russia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That in­quiry ex­tends to whether the pres­i­dent sought to ob­struct jus­tice by urg­ing Comey to end the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Separately, the act­ing Repub­li­can chair­man and se­nior Demo­crat in charge of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s Russia in­ves­ti­ga­tion for­mally re­quested that the White House turn over any record­ings of Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions with Comey by June 23.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (DBur­bank), the panel’s rank­ing Demo­crat, said Thurs­day that Trump’s tweets alone on the eve of the dead­line were not enough to sat­isfy their re­quest for a for­mal writ­ten ex­pla­na­tion from the White House coun­sel.

“If the pres­i­dent’s state­ment is ac­cu­rate, it of course raises as many ques­tions as it an­swers,” Schiff said in a state­ment. Among them: whether Trump was in­ten­tion­ally seek­ing to mis­lead the public and si­lence Comey, and whether he took sim­i­lar steps to dis­cour­age other wit­nesses from com­ing for­ward.

“While I would cer­tainly hope that the pres­i­dent’s most re­cent state­ment is true, we will con­tinue to pur­sue the mat­ter with other wit­nesses so that the public can be as­sured that if record­ings were ever made, they will be pre­served and be made avail­able to the com­mit­tee and ul­ti­mately to the public, as well,” Schiff added.

San­ders, Trump’s spokes­woman, sidestepped ques­tions about whether the pres­i­dent meant to sug­gest that the CIA, FBI or other law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies might be mon­i­tor­ing Trump’s pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

“He’s con­cerned with the num­ber of leaks that do come out of our in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. I think all Amer­ica should be con­cerned with that,” she said. “There’s public record that talks about sur­veil­lance, that talks about un­mask­ing. We know those prac­tices take place.”

Thurs­day wasn’t the first time Trump has sug­gested he might be the sub­ject of se­cret sur­veil­lance. In March, with­out ev­i­dence, he accused the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of wire­tap­ping his phones dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion, call­ing it “McCarthy­ism.”

The claim ap­peared to be based on unfounded re­ports in con­ser­va­tive me­dia out­lets. When it sparked a flurry of ques­tions, the White House said it would not an­swer and in­stead asked Congress to ini­ti­ate an in­quiry on the mat­ter, in con­nec­tion with its on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion.

Comey, then still serv­ing as FBI di­rec­tor, and NSA Di­rec­tor Michael S. Rogers later tes­ti­fied be­fore law­mak­ers that they could not ver­ify the pres­i­dent’s al­le­ga­tion.

“I’m not go­ing to try and char­ac­ter­ize the tweets them­selves. All I can tell you is we have no in­for­ma­tion that sup­ports them,” Comey told the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

By hint­ing that there may be sur­veil­lance record­ings of his con­ver­sa­tions held some­where in the U.S. gov­ern­ment, Trump is “go­ing to have a lot of peo­ple be­liev­ing that the ‘deep state’ was cov­er­ing this guy for­ever, which was not the case,” said Frank Scafidi, a 20-year vet­eran of the FBI who ran its public af­fairs and con­gres­sional re­la­tions of­fices be­fore re­tir­ing in 2004.

“I think this is as close as we are ever go­ing to get to an ad­mis­sion from Don­ald Trump that he was spin­ning peo­ple in cir­cles and he was ly­ing about the tapes,” Scafidi said.

‘He’s play­ing with the press. This is part of his whole pre­sen­ta­tion for most of his life, and he isn’t go­ing to stop now.’ — Stewart Baker, for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency gen­eral coun­sel

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