Updated on May 12 at 11:32 p.m.
On some days, comparisons between the present moment and Watergate seem like overheated frenzy. And on other days, it seems like President Trump is actively courting them.
On Wednesday, that was Trump inviting former Nixon aide Henry Kissinger to the White House. Friday, that’s a tweet he fired off in the morning:
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
The tweet is astonishing in several ways. For one, it could be read as an attempt to intimidate fired FBI Director James Comey, who could testify to Congress as early as Tuesday. For another, Trump seems to imply the possibility that there are recordings of goings-on in the White House.
White House tapes are, of course, inextricably linked with Richard Nixon, and their existence (as well as their deletion) was central to his forced resignation in 1974, although his two predecessors also recorded goings-on. It seems highly unlikely that a president would be so foolish as to make the error Nixon did of recording incriminating things, but then so much about this presidency has been highly unlikely. And, as Trump biographer Tim O’Brien points out, he has previously told reporters he had a recording system in his Trump Organization office, without producing evidence that was the case. If there were tapes, Trump’s tweet is daring investigators to subpoena them. If there were not, it’s merely a tin-pot threat toward Comey.
Further confusing things is Trump’s use of scare quotes around tapes. It’s one of his typographical quirks, from a May 2 tweet that said “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” to his infamous accusation that Barack Obama had his “wires tapped.” The president has since claimed that the scare quotes absolve him from accuracy in the accusation. (Could it be that Trump, while accusing Obama of surreptitiously recording his conversations, was actually doing so himself?)
The dinner in question was a meeting between Trump and Comey on or around January 27. Trump first disclosed the dinner on Thursday, during an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt. The president has claimed that Comey told him on three separate occasions that he, Trump, was not personally under FBI investigation. Trump said the first of these was over a meal.
“I had dinner with him,” Trump said. “He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on.”
Holt clarified: Comey has requested the dinner? Trump hedged, slightly:
“Dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head, and I said, ‘I'll consider it. We'll see what happens.’ But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me you are not under investigation.”
But Thursday night, a New York Times story offered an alternative account, sourced to “several” associates of Comey’s. In their telling, Trump summoned Comey to dinner. The FBI director, who considered his independence paramount, waffled over the invitation, but ultimately decided to accept because he felt he could not turn down the president. NBC News has a similar account of the meal.
During the dinner, the Times reports, Trump bragged about his electoral victory, as he is wont to do, and asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him. Trump is famously demanding of loyalty from his employees, as my colleague McKay Coppins has written, but Comey reportedly felt uncomfortable making such a pledge. He told Trump he could offer “honesty,” but not necessarily loyalty.
“The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner,” the Times reported.
In retrospect, Comey’s worries about independence appear to have been well-placed. During his interview with Holt, Trump said the FBI’s Russia investigation factored into his decision to fire Comey. A series of press reports have made the connection even more direct: The president was allegedly enraged by the probe, which he says is a “charade” and “a made-up story,” and hoped that firing the director would help change its course.
The FBI director’s job is structured to be partly insulated from political interference. On the one hand, there’s a concern about the director being too independent, lest he or she become like J. Edgar Hoover and be able to blackmail the president. On the other, no one wants the director of the bureau to be too easily bullied by a president who might want to interfere, and so the director gets one 10-year term. The president can fire him or her, but Comey is only the second director to get the heave-ho.
The Times story does not address Trump’s claim that he asked Comey whether he was under investigation, nor what the answer was. Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested during a hearing Thursday that Comey had also told him Trump was not under investigation. Opinions diverge about whether it would have been improper for Trump to ask that questions, and some legal experts are dubious that Comey would have been willing to answer. One former official told NBC Comey would have declined to say.
Interestingly, the Times story carries the implication that Comey conveyed details of his conversations with Trump specifically in case he was fired:
Mr. Comey described details of his refusal to pledge his loyalty to Mr. Trump to several people close to him on the condition that they not discuss it publicly while he was F.B.I. director. But now that Mr. Comey has been fired, they felt free to discuss it on the condition of anonymity.
The administration says that the story told by Comey’s associates is not true, and that Trump would never demand personal loyalty of the FBI director. Comey, for his part, has not made any public statement aside from an open letter to his former employees.
Comey’s silence aside, there now exist two irreconcilable accounts of the dinner. Either Trump asked for the dinner or Comey did. Either Trump asked for loyalty or he did not. And it is increasingly difficult, and perhaps no longer possible, to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on the Comey matter. The White House has offered at least three separate accounts for how and why it made the decision to fire the director. On Thursday, the president even directly contradicted public statements made by the vice president and a White House spokeswoman, saying that contrary to their claims, he had decided to fire Comey before he received a recommendation from the attorney general and his deputy.
If, however, Trump truly does have recordings of his discussion with Comey, he could demonstrate his probity on the matter.