President Donald Trump on Thursday said he did not make and does not have any “tapes” or recordings of his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey, ending a nearly six-week saga he kicked off by suggesting in a tweet that such tapes existed.
“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 stated in a pair of tweets on Thursday afternoon.
Trump’s tweeted announcement, which came a day before a House Intelligence Committee deadline for the White House to produce any such tapes, was drafted with the help of his communications team on Thursday morning, according to a White House official.
While Trump averted an immediate showdown with Congress over the existence of such tapes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel said he planned to talk to his Republican counterpart, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), about whether it’s necessary to subpoena the White House to be completely sure the president is telling the truth.
“We would hope that we could rely on a statement from the president,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), told reporters. “Unfortunately, the president has indicated in other statements that he is more than willing to play fast and loose with the truth.”
Notably, Trump’s tweets left open the possibility that someone else could have such recordings.
The White House resisted elaborating on the tweets Thursday afternoon, with deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters that the posts are “extremely clear.”
“I don’t have anything to add,” she said during an off-camera gaggle at the White House. “You guys asked for an answer. He gave you one.”
Sanders said she didn’t know if lawyers had reviewed the tweets.
For White House officials, the “tapes” tweet has been another distracting self-inflicted wound, one that set off a chain of events that resulted in a dramatic escalation of the investigations into Trump and his aides.
Trump first broached the possibility of tapes with a May 12 tweet, just three days after he abruptly fired Comey, who was leading an investigation into potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia to influence the 2016 election.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” the president warned that morning, without elaborating.
Within two hours of that message, one senior White House official had told POLITICO, “No one believes there are any tapes.”
That Friday afternoon, several senior administration officials also said they had no idea if Trump had tapes. Press secretary Sean Spicer seemed particularly rattled by the claim, one official said, knowing he would have to defend it on camera. Spicer told at least one associate that he had no idea if there were tapes.
Trump wanted White House officials to not say whether tapes existed — hoping he would make Comey second-guess giving out damaging information, according to administration officials. Most of his inner circle didn’t even ask him about the tweet at the time, largely dismissing it.
And there was no government-wide push to find out whether anyone in the federal government had recorded the calls, one senior administration official said.
But the tweet seemed to backfire. Comey was agitated at the claim and “amazed” that the president would post such a statement on Twitter, one associate said. The ousted FBI director later told lawmakers under oath that the president’s tweet sparked the idea to pass on the contents of a memo he kept detailing an interaction with the president to a friend, who shared that information with The New York Times.
That memo and others — which claimed the president had requested Comey’s loyalty and asked the FBI chief to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe and ease off an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — led to the Justice Department naming a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to oversee the bureau’s Russia investigation, which now includes potential obstruction of justice. And that, in turn, has prompted Trump to grow angrier and angrier.
During his testimony, Comey said he didn’t know if Trump recorded the conversations with him but said he hoped any such documentation would become public.
“I’ve seen the tweet about the tapes,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Sanders on Thursday said that she doesn’t think Trump’s May 12 post was a threat and suggested Trump has no regrets about tweeting it, despite it being the impetus for the appointment of a special counsel.
“I don’t think so,” Sanders said in response to the question about any regrets.
Schiff told reporters on Thursday that he was baffled by why the president would suggest that tapes existed if there are none.
“I think the president has confirmed what we all suspected was the case — that when he was claiming to potentially have tapes of conversations between him and James Comey that he very likely didn’t, but wanted to threaten Director Comey,” Schiff said.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he would encourage the panel’s leaders to go forward with a subpoena.
“With all due respect, [Trump] didn’t say there are no tapes,” Quigley said in an interview. “He said, ‘I didn’t make tapes, and I don’t have tapes.’ Maybe that’s just a lawyer’s distinction, but it doesn’t tell me whether there are tapes or not.”
In the Senate, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, expressed exasperation over the six-week quest to get the president to confirm or deny the existence of tapes.
“It’s just so baffling to me why he wouldn’t have acknowledged that weeks ago,” Warner said. “I just … this is not the way responsible leaders act.”
The president had told reporters earlier this month he would be forthcoming about the possible existence of tapes “over a very short period of time.”
“Oh, you’re gonna be very disappointed when you hear the answer,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
White House officials have said for weeks they wanted to rip the proverbial band-aid off the “tapes” tweet, but Trump wasn’t interested.
The president, one adviser said, was never going to say “there are no tapes.”
“He had to hedge it still so there could be tapes,” this person said. “He didn’t want to just give in. He never does.”
Austin Wright, Matthew Nussbaum, Tara Palmeri and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.