White House spokesman Sean Spicer repeatedly refused to confirm or deny whether President Trump tapes his phone calls or conversations with others – including inside the Oval Office.
The startling non-denial at the White House press briefing came just hours after Trump, in what appeared to be a threat to his fired FBI director Friday morning, implied there may be recordings of his conversations with James Comey. "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
Spicer dodged multiple questions from reporters about whether Trump makes a habit of recording conversations, or whether there were recording devices in the room during the meeting with Comey – though Spicer did say he was not personally aware any such recordings existed.
"He simply stated the fact. The tweet speaks for itself," Spicer said. "There's nothing further to add on that."
Trump's early morning tweet that set off this firestorm was a clear indication of his defensiveness as the fallout continues from this week's abrupt and controversial firing of Comey, the man who was overseeing an ongoing FBI investigation into whether Trump's campaign associates colluded with Russians seeking to influence the American presidential election.
Yet Trump's tweet this morning was not actually meant as a warning to Comey not to speak to the media, Spicer said. "That’s not a threat. The tweet speaks for itself," Spicer said.
At issue here are the differing accounts of the discussions Trump had with Comey over the FBI's Russia investigation.
In his short termination letter to Comey on Tuesday, Trump made a specific point of mentioning that he "appreciated" how the FBI told him three times he was not personally under investigation in the counterintelligence probe. He later elaborated, in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, that those conversations took place twice in phone calls and once at a private dinner with the FBI director.
FBI officials have questioned Trump's claims, and the agency's acting director, Andrew McCabe, on Thursday said such assurances about the scope of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation would not be "standard practice.''
Also, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence who was with Comey in the hours before the Jan. 27 dinner, cast serious doubt on Trump's claim that Comey told the president that he was not a target of an ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials at a private White House dinner in January.
Clapper said the director was "deeply uneasy'' about the meeting – but ultimately accepted the president's invitation out of "professional courtesy.'' In an interview on MSNBC on Friday, Clapper said: "He was uneasy with it just for the optics of compromising the independence of the FBI."
Trump, on the other hand, told NBC a day earlier that Comey had requested the dinner to ask to keep his job after the election. FBI directors, by law, serve 10 year terms; Comey had six more years left.
Since the other assurances Trump mentioned apparently took place by phone, some analysts wondered if Trump's reference to "tapes" referred to wiretapping.
In a letter sent to the White House, House Democratic leaders called for the release of any tapes and recorded communications between Trump and Comey. Trump’s early Friday warning even of the prospect of “tapes," they said, “raised the specter of possible intimidation and obstruction of justice.’’
"Under normal circumstances, we would not consider credible any claims that the White House may have taped conversations of meetings with the president," Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a letter to White House Counsel Donald McGahn. "However, because of the many false statements made by White House officials this week, we are compelled to ask whether any such recordings do in fact exist. If so, we request copies of all recordings in possession of the White House regarding this matter."
Wikileaks also offered $100,000 to anyone who would leak tapes of Trump and Comey's communications.
Some analysts say Trump might not be the only one to be keeping track of conversations. Comey, they said, might have his own written records of his discussions with Trump.
Historian Michael Beschloss tweeted: "Have to presume that Comey kept some kind of record of any conversation he had with the President."
And Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice during the Obama administration, tweeted: "One thing I learned at DOJ about Comey: he leaves a protective paper trail whenever he deems something inappropriate happened. Stay tuned."
Giving more details about the discussions at Friday's briefing, Spicer said Trump was seeking assurances from the FBI director that he wasn't under investigation because he wanted to fight back against "the narrative" building around the Russia story.
Disputing the basis of the Russia investigation, Spicer said, "There's no collusion that occurred." In fact, Trump wants investigators to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in the election, Spicer said, so as to debunk the "false narrative" that the Trump campaign was somehow involved.
In the Friday briefing, Spicer also denied reports that Trump solicited a loyalty pledge from Comey during their dinner earlier this year.
A New York Times report – one that may have inspired one of Friday's tweets — said Trump asked the FBI director to pledge personal loyalty to him during their dinner. "Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge," the Times reported. "Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not 'reliable' in the conventional political sense."
Spicer's briefing began with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster discussing the president's upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe, despite threats from President Trump earlier in the day threatening to cancel press briefings because he was unhappy with the media coverage of Comey's dismissal.
"As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" Trump tweeted. "Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future "press briefings" and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???"
In a striking reversal one day earlier, Trump told NBC News that he planned to fire Comey even before meeting with top-ranking Justice Department officials and soliciting their recommendations on his performance. "I was going to fire regardless of (their) recommendation," Trump said in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, calling Comey a "showboat" and "grandstander" who led the agency into turmoil.
He also specifically brought up the ongoing Russia investigation. "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," Trump told NBC. "It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should've won."
These reasons contradicted the White House's assertions — and even the widely disseminated termination letter Trump sent Comey — that the dismissal was based on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who criticized Comey's handling of the email investigation into Hillary Clinton last year.
Spicer called the coverage of changing stories behind Comey's dismissal miss the point.
"It's always the president's decision," Spicer said.
He did not dispute Trump's suggestion that press briefings should be canceled, saying only, "I think he's a little dismayed" by the media coverage.
Trump reiterated the idea of canceling briefings in a separate interview with Fox's Jeanine Pirro. Calling them "press conferences," he characterized the briefings as having "a level of hostility that’s incredible and it’s very unfair."
The White House Correspondents Association objected to Trump's threat. Shutting down news briefings, the association said in a statement, "would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned."