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Trump asks Comey to ‘be honest’ about conversations E-mail
Opinion
Saturday, 13 May 2017 07:39


A SECOND OPINION, The New York Times



President Trump on Friday warned James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director he fired this week, against leaking anything negative about him, saying that Mr. Comey “better hope” that there are no secret tapes of their conversations that the president could use in retaliation.

The suggestion that the president may be surreptitiously recording his meetings or telephone calls added a sensational new twist at the end of a week that roiled Washington. Mr. Trump and his White House aides later refused to say whether the president tapes his visitors, something Mr. Trump was suspected of doing when he was in business in New York.

“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump appeared to be referring to a report in The New York Times that Mr. Comey had declined to pledge his loyalty during a dinner at the White House earlier this year, an account the president denied. Asked directly about whether there were tapes of his conversations, Mr. Trump refused to say.

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“That I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about it,” the president told Fox News. “All I want is for Comey to be honest.”

No president in the past 40 years has been known to regularly tape his phone calls or meetings because, among other reasons, they could be subpoenaed by investigators as they were during the Watergate investigation that ultimately forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign. Phone calls with foreign leaders, though, are typically transcribed with the knowledge of other participants.

Democrats expressed shock. “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 Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “The president should immediately provide any such recordings to Congress or admit, once again, to have made a deliberately misleading — and in this case threatening — statement.”

Representatives John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrats on the judiciary and oversight committees, sent a letter to the White House on Friday demanding copies of any recordings if they exist. 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 the president records his conversations, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, would not say. “The president has nothing further to add on that,” Mr. Spicer said, repeating the answer or some variation of it several more times as reporters pressed.

He denied that the president was threatening the former F.B.I. director. “That’s not a threat,” Mr. Spicer said. “He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I’m moving on.”

The matter arose in a series of early-morning Twitter messages in which Mr. Trump appeared agitated over news reports on Friday that focused on contradictory accounts of his decision to fire Mr. Comey at the same time the F.B.I. is investigating ties between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia. Among other things, he threatened to cancel future White House briefings.

The president expressed pique at attention on the shifting versions of how he came to decide to fire Mr. Comey. In his first extended comments on the firing on Thursday, Mr. Trump contradicted statements made by his White House spokeswoman as well as comments made to reporters by Vice President Mike Pence and even the letter the president himself signed and sent to Mr. Comey informing him of his dismissal.

The original White House version of the firing was that the president acted on the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general because of Mr. Comey’s handling of last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email. But in an interview with NBC News on Thursday, Mr. Trump said he had already decided to fire Mr. Comey and would have done so regardless of any recommendation. And he indicated that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he made the decision.

Implicitly acknowledging that misinformation had been given out, Mr. Trump said on Friday morning that no one should expect his White House to give completely accurate information.

“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” he wrote on Twitter.

“Maybe,” he added a few moments later, “the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

The threat may have been just a rhetorical point, and the daily briefing already scheduled for later in the day went forward with Mr. Spicer, despite the Twitter post. Mr. Spicer declined to say whether the president had decided to stop holding daily news briefings, saying that Mr. Trump is “a little dismayed” about the unwillingness of reporters to focus on the policy actions of his administration.

“We see time and time again an attempt to parse every little word and make it a game of gotcha,” Mr. Spicer said.

In a later interview with Fox News, Mr. Trump suggested he was seriously thinking about canceling the briefings. “Unless I have them every two weeks and I do them myself, we don’t have them,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Jeff Mason, a White House correspondent for Reuters and the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said the group would object to canceling briefings. “Doing away with briefings would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned,” he said.

Every president in modern times has been frustrated with the news media at points, but they all preserved the tradition of the daily briefing, if for no other reason than to get their message out. Mr. Trump, with Twitter as his own trumpet, may feel less need for that. By his own description, Mr. Trump likes to be unpredictable and does not feel obligated to follow longstanding White House conventions simply because that is the way things have been done for years.

There is already precedent for shutting down news briefings during Mr. Trump’s presidency. The State Department for decades held daily briefings with only rare and brief interruptions in a process that was important not only to inform reporters of administration policy, but foreign governments and even the department’s own far-flung diplomats. But such briefings have largely ended during the Trump administration.

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