The White House is officially either unable, or unwilling, to deny that the President of the United States recorded conversations with ousted FBI director James Comey or is secretly recording people in the Oval Office.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to answer direct, yes-or-no questions on the matter during the briefing on Friday—a remarkable deflection that means Americans do not know whether there are listening devices in the taxpayer-funded White House, whether they are being used, and who they might be recording.
Spicer’s inability to say whether or not the president is recording people, despite having apparently spoken directly to him, is another indicator that this White House press operation’s ability to speak for the boss has been heavily impaired. This week, Sanders, as well as Vice President Mike Pence, told the media that Trump had made the decision to fire Comey based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt that he would have fired Comey regardless of any recommendation, and implied that the ongoing FBI inquiry into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with an alleged Russian effort to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor played a role in the decision.
A tweet from President Trump on Friday morning, sent amid the firestorm over his sudden dismissal of Comey this week, created another controversy: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
The tweeted suggestion that there are recordings of Trump’s interactions with Comey, and the implied threat from the president to the former FBI director, became the story. But the White House stayed quiet about whether the “tapes” actually existed. White House press staff did not respond to multiple inquiries on Friday morning and afternoon about whether or not recordings are being made in the White House or whether Trump recorded Comey.
“Sean addressed in briefing,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email on Friday afternoon.
But he didn’t. Instead, Spicer—whose credibility, as well as that of other White House spokespeople, has been seriously eroded by the president’s own tweets denigrating his press team and by his statements contradicting their message on the timeline and rationale for the Comey firing this week—said that he had nothing to add on the matter.
"I’ve talked to the president and the president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said when asked by Reuters’ Jeff Mason if Trump had recorded Comey.
“That’s not a threat, he’s simply stated a fact,” Spicer said of the tweet. “The tweet speaks for itself. I’m moving on.”
Pressed by Time’s Zeke Miller to give a yes-or-no answer on whether or not the president is recording people at the White House, Spicer said he had “no further comment on that.”
Spicer also did not directly answer whether anyone in the White House has an audio recording of Trump’s dinner with Comey in which, the New York Times reported, Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty. (Spicer denied on Friday that Trump had asked for Comey’s loyalty.)
The implication that there could be secret recordings being made in the White House recalls, of course, the Nixon administration. President Richard Nixon recorded visitors to the Oval Office between 1971 and 1973. The existence of Nixon’s tapes came to light during a hearing of the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal, when the deputy chief of staff who had supervised the installation of the recording equipment revealed its existence. Congress subpoenaed the tapes and Nixon refused to comply, triggering his impeachment. The tapes also famously recorded Nixon agreeing to an effort to try to persuade the FBI to cease its investigation into the break-in of the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel, which had been carried out by Nixon aides.
Trump himself cast doubt on his spokespeople’s ability to accurately represent him, tweeting on Friday that “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” and suggesting that he may cancel future press briefings.