Why U.S. Presidents Stopped Secretly Taping Their Conversations

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and others in between generated thousands of hours of audio from meetings and telephone calls. Is Donald Trump reviving that practice?

John F. Kennedy, seen here with the Marine Corps commandant and the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, recorded hours of conversation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (William J. Smith / AP)

What did the president say? And how did he say it?

These riffs on the questions that Republican Senator Howard Baker asked during the Watergate hearings help frame the current political moment in America. Whether they apply to President Trump’s alleged request for loyalty from then-FBI Director James Comey, or his Oval Office remarks to senior Russian officials about sensitive intelligence matters, or his reported attempt to steer the FBI away from investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, they are at the center of a national drama that threatens to unravel the Trump administration within its first five months in office.

What makes them not only fundamental to the investigations now enveloping the White House, but also tantalizing for Trump critics to pose is the possibility that someone might actually be able to answer them.

In a tweet earlier this month, Trump seemed to float the idea that he’d recorded discussions with Comey—he “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”—and launched much speculation over the goods he might have on others with whom he’s consulted in the White House. It’s still unknown whether any such tapes exist. But if they do, it would mark the first confirmed instance of a practice that, presumably, had been long abandoned by American presidents—and, given its impact on Richard Nixon, for good reason.

But good reasons had also led a string of presidents to install taping systems of their own. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who captured only eight hours of conversation on tape, to Nixon, who vacuumed up roughly 3,400 hours of recorded material, the history of presidential taping, analyzed and published by scholars at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, provides an extraordinary window into the workings of the White House during some of the most consequential periods in American history.

Roosevelt began the practice of surreptitiously recording presidential conversations by taping his press conferences during the summer of 1940. It was an auspicious moment. FDR was maneuvering to support Britain following Nazi victories in Western Europe and continued Japanese thrusts in Asia, while embarking on a political project as yet untried: running for a third presidential term. The tapes he made from August through November 1940 reveal an unscripted president considering the challenges of the day, and reflect his desire for an accurate account of what transpired in his meetings with journalists. Angered at being misquoted in early 1939, Roosevelt had been searching for a means to track his exchanges until officials with RCA presented him with a workable system the following June.

But Roosevelt was never entirely comfortable recording his visitors without their knowledge, and he discontinued the practice shortly after his reelection. Although he refrained from using the system for the remainder of his presidency, neither did he remove it from his desk, where its wires ran up to a lampshade microphone and down to the console underneath his office.

Nor did his successor in that office, Harry Truman, have much use for it. After listening to the tape of a press conference he held less than two weeks into his presidency, Truman decided it would be the last such recording he would make. The 10 hours of material that appear on his tapes are mostly garbled conversations of random moments, and lack any indication of why they were made and on whose authority. Inconsistency likewise marks the recordings of Dwight Eisenhower, who taped just under five hours of conversation between 1953 and 1958. Like Roosevelt, he wanted a record of what was said in the Oval Office as a form of protection, particularly when holding discussions on sensitive matters or with individuals of dubious trust.

With the torch passed to a new generation in January 1961, John F. Kennedy launched the presidency into a new frontier of secret White House taping. His reasons for doing so remain obscure. As with his predecessors, the desire for an accurate record was one such motivation; Kennedy’s anger with officials who criticized the Bay of Pigs operation after the fact—but who withheld their objections before its collapse—spurred his interest in securing some form of political insurance.

Moreover, as a student of history, Kennedy likely entertained thoughts of using the tapes in the service of memoirs he’d expected to write. And his interest in war and decision making, enhanced by his appreciation of Barbara Tuchman’s then-recent The Guns of August, which recounted the tragic onset of the First World War, might also have fueled his desire to keep track of how his administration handled itself in moments of crisis.

He certainly got that, and more. His tapes on the Cuban Missile Crisis represent a significant chunk of the 260 hours of conversation he recorded, 248 of them from meetings with groups large and small, and another 12 capturing telephone conversations with aides, legislators, and private individuals. The subjects they cover are among the most significant of the day: civil-rights crises in Mississippi and Alabama, superpower relations and the threat of nuclear war, and an escalating war in Vietnam.

Tragically, Kennedy would not live to resolve them, as his vice president vowed upon Kennedy’s death to continue the work they’d begun a thousand days earlier. In the course of doing so, Lyndon Johnson maintained the practice of secret taping, recording conversations virtually from the moment he assumed the presidency. Taping first from the then-Old Executive Office Building before moving into the Oval Office four days later, Johnson used the phone as an extension of his being as he grasped the levers of power and reassured a nation in mourning.

During the course of his roughly five years as president, Johnson recorded over 800 hours of conversations, the vast majority of them—around 650—on the telephone. The meeting tapes that make up the remainder of that corpus come from the final year of the Johnson presidency, as LBJ struggled to manage an increasingly unpopular war, a bitterly divided Democratic Party, a dramatic rise in public and political violence, and his own declining fortunes in the nation’s highest office. Collectively, the Johnson tapes reveal a president, like those who came before him, intent on making a record of what he and—probably even more so—his counterparts said on each end of the line. And beyond his use of a recording system in real time, Johnson was able draw on the materials while writing his memoirs.

Having benefited greatly from his taping regime, Johnson counseled his successor on the value of recording his own White House conversations. But it would be more than two years before Nixon followed suit, making do with human note takers and transcribers. In the search for greater candor in his meetings, and better color for later writings, Nixon eventually installed his own system. It differed from Kennedy’s and Johnson’s in one key respect: Unlike their manually operated setups, Nixon’s was voice-activated, and therefore captured virtually everything said in the many rooms he wired for sound in the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, and at Camp David.

The result is roughly 3,400 hours of conversation that cover the highest affairs of state, as well as some of the lowest moments in American history—including evidence that Nixon sought to impede an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in and related activities associated with his recent reelection campaign.

By the time that Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape came to light in August 1974, legislators and the American public could more easily answer questions about what the president knew, and when and how he knew it, because they had heard the president say it. Nixon would resign the presidency just days later, taking with him the knowledge that his recordings provided neither the protection he sought nor the validation he craved.

Enter Donald Trump, whose White House has resisted efforts to clarify the president’s tweet about the presence of a taping system currently operating at 1600 Pennsylvania. According to CNN, Trump himself has said he “won’t talk about that,” and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, has repeatedly rebuffed reporters’ questions on the matter. “I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that,” he said recently. For now, the American public has only leaking officials and a secret memo to glean information about what Trump says in private. Special Counsel Robert Mueller may yet be able to answer questions about the Trump tapes and their contents. But it would be no small irony if the impulses that birthed the Nixon tapes and ended one presidency were again at work in the undoing of another.