Donald Trump mum on whether he tapes talks with visitors

Mr Donald Trump had warned sacked FBI chief James Comey against leaking anything negative about him, saying he "better hope" there are no secret tapes of their exchanges.
Mr Donald Trump had warned sacked FBI chief James Comey against leaking anything negative about him, saying he "better hope" there are no secret tapes of their exchanges.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Democrats want copies of any recordings as Washington is stunned by President's tweet

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has refused to confirm or deny whether he secretly records conversations he has at the White House, after he warned sacked FBI director James Comey against leaking anything negative about him.

In a tweet on Friday, Mr Trump said Mr Comey "better hope" there are no secret tapes of their conversations that the President could use against him.

The suggestion that Mr Trump may be surreptitiously recording his meetings or telephone calls added a twist at the end of a week that roiled Washington.

The President and his spokesman later refused to say whether he tapes exchanges with his visitors, something that Mr Trump was suspected of doing when he was in business in New York.

"Well, that I can't talk about," Mr Trump told Fox News in an interview on Thursday, CNN reported.

MIND-BOGGLING

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.

CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, commenting on Mr Trump's tweet warning Mr James Comey

"I won't talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest. And I hope he will be."

Mr Trump appeared to be referring to an article in The New York Times that said he had asked Mr Comey to pledge loyalty during a dinner at the White House shortly after the Jan 20 inauguration, only to be rebuffed by the FBI director who considered it inappropriate.

Democrats were incredulous. "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 Mr Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Meanwhile, top Democrats on the judiciary and oversight committees have sent a letter to the White House demanding copies of any recordings.

The letter noted that "it is a crime to intimidate or threaten any potential witness with the intent to influence, delay or prevent their official testimony".

Asked if Mr Trump records his conversations, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would only say: "The President has nothing further to add on that." Mr Spicer repeated the answer or some variation of it several more times as reporters pressed.

He also denied that Mr Trump was threatening Mr Comey, saying: "That's not a threat... He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I'm moving on."

Mr Comey himself made no comment, but later in the day he declined a request to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. According to a close associate, he is willing to testify, but wants it to be in public.

Throughout Mr Trump's business career, some executives who came to work for him were taken aside by colleagues and warned to assume that their discussions with the boss were being recorded.

"There was never any sense with Donald of the phone being used for private conversation," said Mr John O'Donnell, who was president of the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in the 1980s.

For Mr O'Donnell and others who have had regular dealings with Mr Trump through the years, there was something viscerally real about the threat implied by the President's "tapes" tweet.

"Talking on the phone with Donald was a public experience," said Mr O'Donnell, author of a book about his former boss, Trumped: The Inside Story Of The Real Donald Trump. "You never knew who else was listening."

Mr Spicer on Friday refused to say whether the White House still has an active taping system. It has for most of the past 70 years.

In the popular imagination, White House taping started and ended with then President Richard Nixon's incriminating recordings of his plotting to cover up the Watergate burglary and other crimes. The Nixon presidency was ultimately undone in 1974 by the revelation of the Oval Office recordings.

Mr Trump's fascination with recording his conversations goes back to the early years of his real estate career, when he installed in his 26th-storey office in Trump Tower a "system for surreptitiously tape-recording business meetings", according to an eyewitness account in journalist Harry Hurt's 1993 biography, Lost Tycoon.

And BuzzFeed News reported last year that Mr Trump listened in on calls made by staff at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Trump mum on whether he tapes talks with visitors'. Print Edition | Subscribe