WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump jumped on Twitter Friday morning to taunt former FBI Director James Comey and the press, but the early morning broadsides mainly managed to stir ghosts of Watergate.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted in a post that reminded many of former President Richard Nixon’s White House taping that emerged during Watergate.
Critics were all too happy to make the connection.
“Oh my god. He has ‘tapes’.” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., tweeted. Other posters made #Watergate a frequent hashtag.
At Friday’s press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer would not answer repeated questions as to whether the president is or has recorded conversations held inside the White House.
‘The tweet speaks for itself’
“I’ve talked to the president,” Spicer replied. “The president has nothing further to add on that,” To another question about the “tapes” tweet, Spicer responded. “The tweet speaks for itself.”
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
The Friday furor marked the third full day that the nation’s capital was consumed with Trump’s Tuesday night firing of Comey amid the FBI’s continuing investigation into possible collusion between the Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Trump’s Twitter storm erupted as political observers were parsing an interview that he gave Thursday to NBC News that upended White House accounts of what led to Trump’s abrupt dismissal of the FBI chief.
On Tuesday night, Spicer issued a statement that said, “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
That was a reference to a sharply worded memorandum in which Rosenstein criticized Comey’s public statements on July 5, 2016, about the decision not to file charges against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server to view classified information. Rosenstein’s memo did not mention the FBI investigation into Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
But Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had decided to sack Comey before reading the Rosenstein memo, because he was angry about “this Russia thing,” which he referred to as “fake news.” The president also called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander.”
Trump also described a Jan. 27 dinner with Comey as something the FBI chief had sought. “And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll, you know, consider. We’ll see what happens.”
Unnamed associates of Comey told The New York Times that Trump asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to the president. Comey demurred, although he did promise to be honest with Trump, the associates were quoted as saying.
Spicer denied that Friday, saying, “The president wants loyalty to this country and to the rule of law.”
Trump also repeated his claim that he asked Comey three times if he was under investigation and each time Comey told him he was not.
‘Alarming’ … ‘unnerving’
The evolving story of Comey’s firing has Democrats fired up and demanding an independent investigation of Russian influence.
“The president’s comments and tweets are unprecedented, alarming, and unacceptable,” Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said in a statement. “They reiterate the urgent need for an independent prosecutor and counsel to continue the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. It is crystal clear that the president and his administration cannot be trusted to act in our country’s best interest on this investigation.”
It also has unsettled members of his own party.
The state’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller said during an appearance at a Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce luncheon that “everything concerns me at this point. I’m uncomfortable with the timing of all this, and that’s why I think an independent prosecutor should be on the team if, in fact, the Select Committee and the House cannot get their answers.”
As for the administration’s shifting explanations for Comey’s firing, Heller said, “It’s unnerving to think that this particular story changes on a 24-hour basis. He has the right to get rid of the FBI director, if that’s what he chooses to do. … I just hate that during the middle of this particular investigation that we lost Comey. By the way, I don’t have a negative vision of Comey. I think he’s a Boy Scout.”
Week began quietly
The ongoing drama completed a week that began with a light schedule – so light that a reporter asked at Tuesday’s briefing, “Can you just give us a better sense of what the president has been doing with his time the last few days? We haven’t had very detailed schedules, we haven’t seen him publicly. He’s only had one or two meetings.”
Spicer responded that staff were briefing the president on a planned eight-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium.
That evening Trump fired Comey – and everything changed. The next day Spicer went on Naval Reserve duty and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took over the briefings.
Adding to the clamor was Trump’s White House meeting on Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, whose communication with Trump’s national security adviser Mike Flynn led to Flynn’s resignation. While no U.S. media were allowed in the room, a photographer from Russia’s news agency TASS shot photos of Trump and Lavrov shaking hands.
Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, the first president to fire a man charged with investigating him, dropped by for a chat with Trump as well. This also sparked Watergate comparisons.
By week’s end, the Comey controversy had grown so intense that the president appeared to be rethinking the White House communications operation.
In one Friday morning tweet, Trump typed, “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy?”
Friday afternoon Fox News released a clip of yet another Trump interview – this time with Judge Jeanine Pirro. Again Trump entertained the idea of getting rid of the press briefings. Maybe “I have one every two weeks and I do it myself,” he said.
Review-Journal staff writer Art Marroquin contributed to this story. Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.