President Donald Trump finally, grudgingly, had no choice but to come clean.
His admission, on Twitter Thursday that he did not secretly record his conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey — after earlier raising the possibility that he did — capped a six-week charade that damaged his presidency and cast doubt on his personal credibility.
It was a surreal new twist to a presidency that has often already stretched the limits of credulity, and has challenged conventions on the decorum and gravity expected in the behavior of the person who holds the office itself.
After weeks of speculation, the President delivered a mea culpa, a step that he had little choice to make, in a somewhat resentful manner, in keeping with his reluctance to ever publicly admit error.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea … whether there are “tapes” or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets.
His statement was followed by a now-typical attempt by the White House to avoid accountability on an embarrassing episode. Trump’s choice of Twitter to deliver his message did not expose him to cross-examination or questioning from journalists. The White House, meanwhile, banned live television coverage of its daily briefing, allowing only an audio recording to be broadcast afterward.
There’s little doubt that the entire tapes issue represents a serious misstep by the President that put his White House on a perilous political and legal path.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted on May 17.
The tweet caused an uproar, immediately raising comparisons with the Watergate-era taping system that caused the downfall of President Richard Nixon, and demands for Trump to immediately hand over any recordings.
‘Lordy, I hope there are tapes’
If it was an attempt to intimidate Comey, as many have speculated, it backfired spectacularly.
Comey testified to the Senate intelligence committee earlier this month that he saw Trump’s tweet and woke up in the middle of the night a few days later, suddenly twigging that any tapes could provide corroboration of his version of conversations with Trump that left him feeling deeply uncomfortable.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” said Comey in the hearing.
The former FBI chief said that as a result of the tweet he asked a friend to share the content of his memos with a reporter, in the hope that it would lead to the appointment of a special counsel.
That special counsel — Robert Mueller — who was appointed as a direct result of what now looks like a deeply ill-advised Trump tweet, now poses a serious threat to his entire presidency with an investigation into alleged collusion by campaign officials with Russian interference in the US election, that could branch off in unpredictable directions.
One clear effect of Trump’s tweet on Thursday means that the accounting of what happened in conversations between the President and Comey now relies on one man’s word against the other. There apparently are no tapes that could confirm what exactly happened in those chats.
But Comey has already handed the special counsel his contemporaneous memos of conversations in which he said Trump asked him to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, asked him for a pledge of loyalty and wanted him to publicly say that the President himself was not under investigation.
It will now be left to Mueller to decide whether Trump’s actions in his interactions with Comey amount to an attempt to obstruct justice.
The original tweet may be considered as evidence as Mueller tries to work out whether the President was trying to intimidate Comey.
Still, the White House stuck to the line that despite the damaging fallout of the tapes episode, the President had no regrets.
“I don’t think so,” said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when asked whether Trump now wishes he had not issued the original tweet.
Sanders would not divulge many other details about Trump’s motivation in warning of possible tapes of Comey, or why he inflicted a six-week-long mystery on the nation, a period that included him taunting reporters, saying that they were “going to be very disappointed” when the truth was revealed.
“I don’t think it was a game,” Sanders said, in the off-camera briefing, and appeared to suggest the President’s original intent was to press the fired former FBI director to tell the truth.
“I certainly think that the President would hope that the former director would tell the truth, but I think it was more about raising the question of doubt, in general,” she said.
But an associate of Trump who spoke to the President this week, told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that “if he doesn’t regret this, he should.”
The person also said that Trump was amused by all media obsession over the original tweet, raising the possibility that, as so many times before, the President is using conspiracy theories and sparking outrage to dominate the political conversation in Washington — with himself at the center of the storm.
The manner of Trump’s admission that there were no tapes, was consistent with the way in which he has dealt with climb-downs that are personally embarrassing to him during his time in office.
Loath to admit mistakes
The President is known to be loath to publicly admit that he made a mistake. Last September, for instance, Trump finally repudiated his years-long conspiracy theory that claimed President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
But the admission came only at the end of a rambling event at his new hotel in Washington that included warm public testimony on his character from veterans.
That admission came with a new conspiracy theory.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it, you know what I mean,” Trump said, lobbing an unproven allegation against his then Democratic presidential rival.
In the case of his tweet on Thursday, Trump covered his embarrassment by again suggesting something nefarious was underway — by raising the possibility there was some taping going on in the White House without his knowledge — that again came without any corroboration.
Trump’s critics immediately seized on his admission on the tapes to raise concerns about his suitability for the Presidency.
“There have been a lot of surreal and strange statements by Donald Trump, since he became President. But he seems to have a capacity to outdo himself,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said on CNN.
Trump, as commander in chief, has the authority to know about any covert actions being performed by intelligence agencies or any electronic surveillance in the White House, Blumenthal said.
“To say he has no idea is absolutely preposterous and really an insult to the intelligence of the American people,” Blumenthal said.
But other Democrats suggested that they would not necessarily take Trump’s word in a tweet to end the episode.
“I prefer to get something in writing,” said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
The panel had established a deadline of Friday for Trump to hand over any tapes — a move that may have precipitated his admission on Thursday.