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Trump's Warning to Comey Could Chill White House Conversations


FILE - President Donald Trump sits at his desk after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 8, 2017. A recent tweet by Trump referring to "tapes" of conversations with James Comey has sparked talk of the existence of a secret recording system in the White House.

For months, President Donald Trump has complained about leaks of sensitive information that he says are aimed at hurting his administration. On Friday, Trump threatened to do the leaking.

In an early-morning tweet, Trump seemed to say that he had access to a recording of his conversations with FBI Director James Comey, whom the president fired earlier this week:

"James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" the president said in the tweet.

FILE - FBI Director James Comey makes a statement at FBI Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2016.
FILE - FBI Director James Comey makes a statement at FBI Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2016.

He never said explicitly that his meetings with Comey had been recorded, and his spokesman could not clarify the situation at a later briefing, but Trump's comment was widely read as a threat to retaliate against Comey.

The latest developments marked a major escalation in Trump's public feud with Comey, who was leading an investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, and also trying to ascertain whether there was any collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

The idea that a recording system might be in place at the executive mansion also represented a major breach with recent practice. White House officials warned Friday that could have an effect on future conversations with Trump that are meant to be confidential.

Trust slipping away

A former communications staffer in President George W. Bush's administration said he was "confounded" by the tweet, because it could lead to even more distrust in Trump's White House.

"If those who are speaking with the president think they are being taped, with the potential to have those tapes be released, then that changes the nature of the conversation," the former Bush staffer told VOA on condition of anonymity.

"That's a dangerous place to be in. The president needs to have unvarnished advice and counsel," the former official added.

FILE - President Richard M. Nixon points to transcripts of White House tapes, April 29, 1974.
FILE - President Richard M. Nixon points to transcripts of White House tapes, April 29, 1974.

Trump's comments immediately evoked comparisons to former President Richard Nixon, who secretly taped conversations in the White House during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Since the Nixon scandal, the extent to which White House staff record internal conversations has been unclear, partly for security reasons.

Taping? No one knows

"No one really knows if there's a taping system or not," a former senior official in President Barack Obama's White House told VOA, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

"When I was at the White House, I was not aware of a taping system, but I can't say for certain that there wasn't one. And obviously, something could have changed under the Trump administration," the former official said.

Though the White House staff often releases summaries or other records of the president's official meetings, the vast majority of those are understood to be private conversations and remain confidential.

Threatening to make those discussions public when both sides have not agreed to do so is "extraordinary" and most likely a "silly empty threat," the former Obama official said.

"If there is a taping system, you wouldn't want to disclose it this way," the official said.

Asked directly whether Trump possessed a recording of his meetings with Comey, as well as whether a secret recording system even existed, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to answer.

During his regular briefing with reporters Friday, Spicer denied that Trump's tweet was meant to be a threat, answering all questions with the same comment: "The president has nothing further to add on that."

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