Trump is­sues warn­ing tweet

The Progress-Index Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Lemire, Jake Pearson and Julie Pace

WASH­ING­TON — Rag­ing against a po­lit­i­cal firestorm, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Fri­day shot a sharp warn­ing at his ousted FBI direc­tor about pos­si­ble “tapes” of their dis­puted pri­vate conversations, rais­ing the provoca­tive pos­si­bil­ity that record­ing de­vices have been in­stalled in the White House.

Trump’s top spokesman re­fused to com­ment on whether lis­ten­ing de­vices are ac­tive in the Oval Of­fice or else­where, a non-de­nial that re­called the se­cretly taped conversations and tele­phone calls that ul­ti­mately led to Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s down­fall in the Water­gate scan­dal. Trump’s warn­ing to fired FBI Direc­tor James Comey prompted new ac­cu­sa­tions of in­ter­fer­ence in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump pres­i­den­tial cam­paign last year.

It also es­ca­lated a po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing stand­off

be­tween a fum­ing, undis­ci­plined pres­i­dent and the un­ortho­dox law­man he dis­missed three days ear­lier. Not to men­tion Congress, which has its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions un­der­way.

Democrats quickly seized on the dis­pute, de­mand­ing the White House turn over any tapes that might ex­ist of the pres­i­dent’s conversations with Comey.

Trump’s be­hav­ior raises “the specter of pos­si­ble in­tim­i­da­tion and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice,” wrote Reps. John Cony­ers and Eli­jah Cum­mings, rank­ing Democrats on the House Ju­di­ciary and Over­sight com­mit­tees, in a let­ter to White House Coun­sel Don McGahn. “The pres­i­dent’s ac­tions also risk un­der­min­ing the on­go­ing crim­i­nal and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions and the in­de­pen­dence of fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies.”

In an in­ter­view with Fox News Fri­day, Trump de­clined to com­ment on whether he has lis­ten­ing de­vices in the White House.

“Well that I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be hon­est. And I hope he will be,” Trump said.

For a pres­i­dent whose tweets fre­quently rat­tle Wash­ing­ton — and for­eign cap­i­tals — Trump’s mes­sage early Fri­day morn­ing was par­tic­u­larly jar­ring: “James Comey bet­ter hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations be­fore he starts leak­ing to the press!” the pres­i­dent wrote.

The White House re­fusal to elab­o­rate left open sev­eral ques­tions: Was Trump, as his pre­de­ces­sor had in the 1970s, been covertly tap­ing conversations? Was he try­ing to in­tim­i­date Comey? Was he sug­gest­ing Comey had record­ings? Or was it merely a but­ton-push­ing claim launched over frus­tra­tion at news cov­er­age of the con­tro­versy.

The tweet ap­peared to re­fer to a se­ries of three conversations in which, Trump claims, Comey as­sured him he was not un­der FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion as part of the bureau’s probe into Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion. Comey has not ex­plic­itly de­nied the ac­count. But sources close to him have cast doubt on the pres­i­dent’s ac­count, not­ing it would be ex­tra­or­di­nary for an FBI direc­tor to dis­cuss an open in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

On Fri­day, a per­son close to the for­mer direc­tor re­counted a dif­fer­ent ver­sion. At a one-on-one din­ner at the White House in Jan­uary, Trump asked Comey to pledge his loy­alty to the pres­i­dent and Comey de­clined, in­stead of­fer­ing to be hon­est with him, ac­cord­ing the per­son, who re­quested anonymity to dis­cuss pri­vate con­ser­va­tions.

Spicer de­nied that ac­count, in­sist­ing that the pres­i­dent sim­ply “wants loy­alty to this coun­try and the rule of law.” De­tails of the din­ner were first re­ported by The New York Times.

The fir­ing of Comey al­ready has left Trump with the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the first pres­i­dent since Nixon to dis­miss a law en­force­ment of­fi­cial over­see­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion tied to the White House. He also, like Nixon, has grown in­creas­ingly iso­lated in the White House, re­cently re­ly­ing on only a small cir­cle of fam­ily mem­bers and loyal ad­vis­ers while livid about the West Wing’s fail­ing ef­forts to get ahead of the dam­ag­ing Rus­sia story, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral peo­ple close to Trump. They also com­mented only con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss pri­vate conversations.

Those peo­ple also de­scribe him as deeply frus­trated by what he views as un­fair me­dia cov­er­age — ir­ri­ta­tion that emerged in a sep­a­rate tweet in which he sug­gested he may shut down the reg­u­lar press brief­ings at the White House.

Trump was widely known to record some phone conversations at his of­fice in Trump Tower dur­ing his busi­ness ca­reer, some­times re­mark­ing to aides af­ter a call as to whether or not he had taped it.

“I would note that New York is a one-party con­sent state, and Pres­i­dent Trump has al­ways abided by the law,” said Sam Nun­berg, a for­mer cam­paign aide. Fed­eral law and the law in New York State do not re­quire both par­ties on a call to be aware that it was be­ing recorded. In Florida, where the pres­i­dent fre­quently spends week­ends, both par­ties must con­sent to record­ing.

Spicer, who kept his an­swers short dur­ing Fri­day’s brief­ing and largely dodged spe­cific ques­tions about Trump’s meet­ing with Comey, said he was not aware that any record­ing of the Trump-Comey meet­ing ex­ists. As­so­ci­ates of the for­mer FBI direc­tor, who re­mained out of sight Fri­day at his subur­ban Vir­ginia home, said they be­lieved any tapes would val­i­date Comey’s side of the story.

It was not clear when Comey would speak for him­self. He de­clined an in­vi­ta­tion to ap­pear at a closed meet­ing of the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee next week.

The face-to-face meet­ing be­tween the pres­i­dent and the direc­tor raised other con­cerns. It came just days af­ter the FBI in­ter­viewed Trump’s then-Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Mike Flynn about his conversations with the Rus­sian ambassador and a day af­ter act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Sally Yates first alerted the White House that she be­lieved Flynn had lied about the conversations and could be black­mailed by Moscow.

For­mer Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Direc­tor James Clap­per said Fri­day that Comey was un­easy about at­tend­ing the din­ner due to the “ap­pear­ance of com­pro­mis­ing the in­de­pen­dence of the FBI which is a hal­lowed tenet in our sys­tem.”

Clap­per also told MSNBC that he didn’t know if there was col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sian of­fi­cials, con­tra­dict­ing the pres­i­dent’s as­ser­tion that the for­mer direc­tor had cleared him of wrong­do­ing.

The swirling con­tro­versy has oblit­er­ated any mo­men­tum from the House pas­sage of the Republican health care bill last week and threat­ens to over­shadow Trump’s first in­ter­na­tional trip, be­gin­ning next week, in which the pres­i­dent will meet with lead­ers in both the Mid­dle East and Europe.

Trump, in an NBC in­ter­view on Thurs­day, said that he had been in­tend­ing to fire Comey — whom he de­rided as a “show­boat” and “grand­stander” — for months and that it had noth­ing to do with the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But he also said, “In fact when I de­cided to just do it, I said to my­self, I said you know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a made-up story, it’s an ex­cuse by the Democrats for hav­ing lost an elec­tion that they should have won.”

Even be­fore Trump’s provoca­tive tweets, the White House was scram­bling to clar­ify why Comey was fired. It ini­tially cited a Jus­tice Depart­ment memo crit­i­ciz­ing Comey’s han­dling of last year’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails as the im­pe­tus, only to have that ver­sion un­der­cut by Trump him­self.

Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Burr said he doesn’t think the FBI’s Trump-Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion was the rea­son for the fir­ing. But he called Trump’s tweet “in­ap­pro­pri­ate.”

White House of­fi­cials said Trump is con­sid­er­ing nearly a dozen can­di­dates to re­place Comey, In­clud­ing Texas Sen. John Cornyn, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, for­mer Michi­gan Rep. Mike Rogers and for­mer New York City Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Ray Kelly.

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