Administration efforts to contain the damage from the abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey were again thwarted by President Trump himself, when he suggested Friday that he had secretly recorded conversations in his own White House.
"Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" the president wrote Friday morning as part of a series of Twitter posts expressing frustration with the persistence of a story he has continued to fuel.
Asked whether Trump has such recordings, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly refused to answer.
"I've talked to the president. The president has nothing further to add on that," he said several times during the daily White House briefing.
Spicer also said that Trump's tweet was "not a threat. He's simply stating a fact."
Trump himself also declined to answer a question about taping.
"That I can't talk about. I won't talk about that," he said in an interview on Fox News.
Trump's taunting tweet appeared to be a response to a New York Times story citing two close associates of Comey who related what they said was the former FBI director's account of a January dinner with the president. During that dinner, Trump asked that Comey pledge loyalty to him, the associates said, something which Comey declined to do and later expressed concern about.
The article said Comey had told the associates about the dinner on the condition that they not talk to others about it while he served in his post — a condition that ended when Trump fired him Tuesday afternoon.
According to the article, Comey said he had pledged his honesty and explained the tradition of political independence in his position. He told Trump that he could not be considered "reliable" in the conventional political sense, the New York Times reported.
The White House confirmed that the two had dinner, but disputed Comey's account of the conversation.
Democrats and former prosecutors called the White House's refusal to rule out the possibility of a surreptitious recording system extraordinary. Presidents starting with at least Dwight D. Eisenhower are known to have taped conversations in the White House, but the practice was believed to have ended after it became a central part of the scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.
"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," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Schiff and others called for the president to either immediately turn over any recordings to Congress, or admit that there are no tapes. If such recordings exist, they would be considered presidential records, which must be preserved under post-Watergate federal law.
Trump's tweet came less than 24 hours after he provided a timeline of the decision on Comey that contradicted what his communications team and even his own vice president had stated days earlier.
Speaking to NBC News, Trump said he had planned to fire Comey with or without a memo from Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein spelling out reasons why the bureau would benefit from new leadership. Trump added in the interview that he was concerned about the "Russia thing."
In another tweet, he insisted again that neither he nor his associates had colluded with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election. He said former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper "and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt" had confirmed as much.
Clapper denied that in an interview Friday.
"I don't know if there was collusion or not. I don't know if there is evidence of collusion or not, nor should I have in this particular context," he told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. Although he had worked closely with Comey, the FBI would not have told him about a domestic criminal or counterintelligence investigation of that sort, he said.
Clapper's previous statement that he had seen "no evidence" of collusion referred only to evidence gathered by intelligence agencies, not the FBI, he said.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that Rosenstein had agreed to brief the full Senate next week about the Russia investigation and his own involvement in the decision to fire Comey.
The former FBI chief has declined an invitation to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee, although the panel's senior Democratic member, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, held out the possibility that Comey might testify in the future.
"It is our hope that in the not too distant future that we can find time for him to come in and talk to the committee," Warner said on MSNBC.
The White House, meanwhile, released the text of a letter from a law firm representing Trump that it claimed corroborated the president's contention that there was no Russian involvement in his personal or business interests.
Attorneys from the Washington office of the law firm Morgan Lewis, in a letter written two months ago and addressed to Trump, said a review of his tax returns did not show income from Russian sources or debt owed to Russian lenders — "with a few exceptions." Those included roughly $12 million he received for hosting the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and $95 million he got for the sale of an estate in Florida to a Russian billionaire. That amount was far more than what Trump had paid for the property.
The letter left numerous questions unanswered. For example, it said that Trump had mostly not received money from Russian entities, but it did not address the possibility of Russians passing money through entities based in other countries. And it covered a 10-year period, so did not say anything about money Trump might have received before 2006.
The tax lawyers who sent the letter were the same ones who set up the trust arrangement in which Trump partially separated from his business interests before taking office.
Trump has grown frustrated about the Russia investigation, Spicer told reporters later, because "this has been a subject that comes up over and over again when it's been very clearly stated on multiple occasions that there's no collusion that occurred."
Spicer insisted that Trump had not taken action to undermine the FBI's investigation.
"I think he's growingly concerned, as well as a number of American people who are growingly concerned that there is this perpetuated false narrative out there. That's, I think, the nut of this," he told reporters.
News briefings like that might be going away, Trump has suggested. Both on Twitter and in an interview with Fox News, he questioned whether they're a good idea.
On Twitter, the president wrote: "It is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" because he does so many things.
"Just don't have 'em, unless I have them every two weeks, and I do them myself," he suggested to Fox News' Jeanine Pirro. "I think it's a good idea."
Trump said Spicer does a "good job, but gets beat up."
Spicer, during his briefing with reporters, sought to explain why so often statements he has made prove to be misleading or incorrect.
"The president is an active president. He keeps a very robust schedule," Spicer said. "And I think sometimes we don't have an opportunity to get in to see him to get his full thinking."
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