Trump’s warning to Comey deepens White House crisis
President Trump added fuel to the fire engulfing his White House on Friday by warning now-fired FBI Director James Comey not to reveal anything about their conversations.
In an early-morning tweetstorm Friday, Trump suggested there might be recordings of his conversations with Comey that could be used to undercut anything the former director might tell the public.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted.
The stunning pronouncement gave more ammunition to critics who say Trump fired Comey to thwart his bureau’s investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
Later Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly refused to say whether Trump secretly recorded his conversations with Comey — or has done so with any other White House visitors, including members of Congress and foreign dignitaries.
“I’ve talked to the president. The president has nothing further to add on that,” Spicer told reporters.
Democrats quickly demanded that Trump turn over any tapes, if they exist.
“For a president who baselessly accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping him, that Mr. Trump would suggest that he, himself, may have engaged in such conduct is staggering,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“The president should immediately provide any such recordings to Congress or admit, once again, to have made a deliberately misleading — and in this case threatening — statement,” he added.
The remark deepened the sense of crisis surrounding the White House since Trump’s dismissal of Comey on Tuesday evening.
His suggestion that he taped conversations with Comey played right into the hands of critics who were already comparing his actions to that of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
Nixon secretly monitored visitors at the White House complex and Camp David using an elaborate recording system, which was ultimately exposed in 1973 and helped lead to his downfall. No president is known to have used such a system since.
Trump has also vented his frustration with media coverage focusing on the White House’s often-contradictory accounts of how and why he decided to fire the FBI director amid the active Russia investigation.
The president has rarely been seen at the White House this week, but in his first question-and-answer session about Comey’s firing, he contradicted accounts offered by his press team and Vice President Pence that he acted on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Trump told NBC News on Thursday that the decision was his alone and he would have fired Comey “regardless of the recommendation” from Rosenstein.
The president also suggested that the Russia investigation had played a part in firing Comey, something his aides had vehemently denied.
“And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,’ ” he said.
“It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. … This was an excuse for having lost an election.”
Those comments, plus another Friday tweet claiming his aides can’t be expected to convey his views with “perfect accuracy,” raised new questions about the credibility of his top spokespeople: Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Clearly frustrated, the president on Friday threatened to scrap the daily White House briefings for reporters.
Asked by host Jeanine Pirro if he’s moving too fast for his press team, Trump replied, “yes.”
“We don’t have press conferences … just don’t have them,” the president said. “Unless I have them every two weeks and I do them myself, we don’t have them. I think it’s a good idea.”
At the same time, he defended Spicer, whose job is said to be in jeopardy. “Well he’s doing a good job but he gets beat up.”
“Again you know they don’t show the 90 questions that they asked and answered properly,” Trump continued. “I’m saying if they’re off just a little bit, just a little bit, it’s the big story.”
Spicer and Sanders have been tasked with rebutting damaging leaks of Comey’s conversations with Trump, including reports that the president demanded the director’s personal loyalty during a late January dinner.
This week’s events have made their task harder; Sanders conceded Wednesday that at least one discrepancy in the dueling accounts of Comey’s firing happened because she did not speak with the president.
Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style has served him well in the past, and especially during the 2016 campaign, when he was able to keep his foes on the defensive.
But Trump’s unpredictability has at time inflicted damage to his presidency, and is now putting him in dangerous legal waters.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a liberal ethics watchdog, on Friday called on the Justice Department to investigate whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey.
“That tweet shows very, very poor judgment,” said Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush and CREW board vice chairman. “I don’t think he did anything illegal with the tweet. If he is trying to influence Comey’s possible testimony to Congress, however, then he could get into serious trouble.”
Comey declined an invitation to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, but leaders of the panel still hope to bring him in on another date.
Lauren Ouziel, a Temple University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said not enough facts are known to determine whether obstruction occurred, but that Trump’s firing of Comey combined with his “threat” on Twitter should be enough to pique the interest of investigators.
“There’s enough there that makes it worth looking into, based on what’s been publicly reported,” she said. “It raises a significant question as to whether obstruction took place.”
Spicer on Friday insisted the tweet was “not a threat.”
“He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself,” he said.
Ouziel said Trump’s conduct with regard to Comey “clearly amounts to an egregious flouting of the constitutional norms of the office of the presidency, and an abuse of the power of that office.”
Comey hasn’t spoken publicly since his surprise firing Tuesday. But those who know him have told news outlets he’s confident any recording of the conversation would reflect well on him.
“He hopes there are tapes,” one Comey confidant told NBC News. “That would be perfect.”