Updated: 5:10 p.m. EDT
Here’s your morning Impeachment Watch: The president of the United States, @realDonaldTrump, just publicly threatened to release secretly recorded tapes of his conversations with James Comey, the former FBI director he fired this week.
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
Trump’s attempt to intimidate Comey appeared to be in response to reports from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News that the former director had let it be known, through associates, that the president had lied in the termination letter he had his bodyguard deliver to FBI headquarters on Tuesday. The letter included a bizarre aside in which Trump claimed that he was grateful to the director for assuring him, in three conversations, that the president himself was not under investigation. Trump’s claim, one associate of Comey’s told the Journal, “is literally farcical.”
Nonetheless, Trump repeated that claim in an interview with NBC News on Thursday, saying that he had first asked the director over dinner at the White House on January 27 if he was a subject of the federal investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government to undermine his rival, Hillary Clinton.
“I actually asked him, yes,” Trump said of his conversation with Comey, at a dinner requested by the president the day after the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had informed the White House that the FBI had proof that the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump reportedly asked Comey, that night, if he would be “loyal” to him. Comey refused to make such a pledge, his associates told The New York Times.)
“I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know — am I under investigation?’” Trump recalled asking Comey. “He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’”
Moments later, Trump admitted that ending the federal investigation into his own campaign was central to his thinking when he made the final decision to fire the FBI director leading the probe.
“I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said, describing his thought process. “And 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.’”
“It should be over with,” Trump added of the investigation — which, in fact, began months before he won the election. “In my opinion it should’ve been over a long time ago.”
Norm Eisen, a White House Ethics Czar for President Barack Obama, noted that Trump’s tweet could even be criminal intimidation of a witness to his attempt to obstruct justice.
Trump’s reference to the possible existence of recordings of his conversations with Comey — two of which, he says, took place on the phone — raised the immediate specter of a secret White House recording system, like that used by Trump’s political idol, Richard Nixon.
Presidents are supposed to have stopped routinely taping visitors without their knowledge when Nixon’s taping system was revealed in 1973.— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) May 12, 2017
According to his biographer Tim O’Brien, however, during his long career as a fixture of New York gossip columns, Trump often made similar threats to reporters, hinting at hidden recording devices in his Trump Tower office, which simply did not exist.
Another former lawyer in the Obama White House, Dan Jacobson, pointed out that if there are recordings, Trump would be legally required to archive them as official presidential records.
If Trump is actually taping convos, the Pres Records Act requires they be archived, and would violate criminal law (18USC641) to delete them— Daniel Jacobson (@Dan_F_Jacobson) May 12, 2017
In a subsequent tweet, Trump inaccurately claimed that James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, had exonerated him, and described the ongoing FBI investigation as a “witch hunt.”
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
The presidential Twitter meltdown was not going over well at the FBI, according to a former senior official there who told NBC News: “This threatens the independence of the FBI and goes against core American values.”
“This is not going to end well for this administration,” the former official predicted.
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, who had been critical of Comey’s decision-making in regards to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, suggested that the former director might well have made a paper record of any inappropriate behavior by Trump.
And of course, if Trump is lying about the assurances from Comey, it remains possible that he was under investigation as he pressed the FBI director for information.
A source close to Comey told CNN that the president’s attempt to threaten the former FBI director had failed, since, “if there is a tape, there’s nothing he is worried about” that could be on it.
Later in the day, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, refused to confirm or deny that there are recording devices in the Oval Office or elsewhere in the residence.
The president’s spokesman refusing to rule out the possibility that visitors to the White House, including senior officials, might be under surveillance stunned journalists and legal observers — including Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was initially asked to stay on by Trump, and then abruptly fired.
Leaving aside the fate of the republic, the episode seems certain to end badly for Spicer himself, given that Melissa McCarthy was seen impersonating him outside the offices of CNN in Manhattan on Friday, renewing her mockery of him for a sketch to be broadcast on Saturday.