Donald Trump and his press secretary Sean Spicer refused today to disclose whether the president actually taped conversations with former FBI Director James Comey, as Trump implied in a vaguely threatening tweet early today.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
However, those who have known or worked with Trump in the past say they would not be surprised to learn that he taped Comey. They say Trump has a history of recording calls and in some cases meetings. At times he makes it known he is recording and at other times he has done it surreptitiously,
“There was never any sense with Donald of the phone being used for private conversation,” John O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in the 1980s, told The Washington Post.
In his book, Trumped: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump, O’Donnell wrote that for Trump, “talking on the phone was a public experience. You never knew who else was listening.”
The 1993 book, Lost Tycoon by Harry Hurt, reported Trump had a system to secretly tape meetings and had the ability to listen in on his employees’ calls.
Buzzfeed reported last year that Trump had a system which allowed him to listen in on phone conversations by his employees at his Palm Beach Florida resort, Mar-A-Lago.
The question of White House recordings famously played a huge role when President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 as a result of the Watergate investigation. However, Nixon was not the first or only president to have recording capability in the Oval office and elsewhere.
The first president to install recording equipment was Franklin Roosevelt who used it to capture a record of press conferences. It was disabled by President Eisenhower, but revived by President Kennedy, and used by President Johnson and President Reagan.
The capability existed in the Obama White House but was not regularly used. There are ways meetings and phone calls are captured in the modern era. There is an office staffed by the military called The White House Communications Agency which works with the Secret Service. It voice records some of the president’s meetings and events.
Since 2011, the president’s phone calls have used the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows conversations to be retrieved as text.
In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, that requires the president to preserve and archive any recordings made in the White House. It was spurred by the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to Nixon’s resignation which said there was no “executive privilege” to withhold tapes if they were sought under subpoena.
In this case, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md) have already sent the White House a letter seeking the release of any tapes or communications between Trump and Comey. Their letter said Trump’s Tweet raised “the specter of possible intimidation and obstruction of justice.”
What that means is that ultimately if there is a recording of Trump and Comey then the President will be legally required to preserve it and if issued a subpoena, produce it for investigators.
Trump may be threatening Comey with a recording, but in the end, his penchant for surreptitiously capturing what people say to him could become a huge problem for a president who is said to like to discuss things with his staff in his office.
As with the Access Hollywood tape last year, Trump off-camera comments can be very candid, outrageous, and revealing.
If as most now believe Trump fired Comey because he wanted to interfere with the Russia investigation, that could lead to criminal charges, and those “tapes” could put Trump in Nixon’s uncomfortable shoes.