President Donald Trump on Friday warned his sacked FBI director against “leaking” information to reporters, as the White House refused to deny that the president records his conversations with visitors.
Capping a week in which Trump faced a slew of criticism for firing the man investigating his campaign’s possible ties to Russia, Trump told James Comey there could be retribution if he tells the press about their private conversations.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump said, in a morning Twitter tirade that painted a picture of a president under siege and lashing out.
Furious with the news coverage of the White House’s shifting explanations on Comey’s sacking, Trump suggested the media was wrong to expect his spokespeople to be 100 percent accurate.
“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 tweeted.
Trump then went on to suggest scrapping the traditional White House briefings that have existed in some form since the Woodrow Wilson administration almost a century ago.
A briefing was nevertheless held Friday, and spokesman Sean Spicer pushed back against charges that the Republican billionaire president had threatened Comey.
“That’s not a threat. He’s simply stating a fact,” Spicer said tersely. “I’m moving on.”
When pressed about whether Trump recorded his conversations with Comey or others, Spicer responded: “The president has nothing further to add on that.”
Trump’s bareknuckle comments immediately fueled fresh comparisons between his administration and that of disgraced president Richard Nixon, who famously recorded his conversations—a fact that sped his downfall during the Watergate scandal.
“Presidents are supposed to have stopped routinely taping visitors without their knowledge when Nixon’s taping system was revealed in 1973,” tweeted presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Congressional Democrats fumed, with House Intelligence Committee vice-chairman Adam Schiff challenging Trump.
“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,” Schiff said.
In his morning tweetstorm, Trump brought the issue back to Russia, referring to the assertion by the former head of national intelligence that Trump was, to his knowledge, not colluding with Moscow.
“When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?” Trump tweeted.
The White House initially asserted Comey’s dismissal had nothing to do with the Russian investigations, which continue to be an albatross around the neck of Trump’s presidency.
Instead, they said, the president fired Comey on the advice of senior Justice Department officials including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who in a memo expressed concern about Comey’s handling of a 2016 probe into Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton.
But Trump shattered that explanation himself Thursday when he said he had always intended to fire Comey, and that his decision was linked to the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties.
‘Made up story’
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” Trump said in an interview with NBC on Thursday.
The startling admission fanned suggestions Trump may be interfering with the investigation and promoted Comey allies to refute Trump’s account of events.
The Comey controversy has rattled lawmakers across the political spectrum. In a bid to allay concerns, Senate leaders invited Rosenstein to brief all 100 senators next week.
Rosenstein accepted, although the date was being finalized, a Senate aide said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee invited Comey himself to testify Tuesday behind closed doors. But panel aides told AFP that Comey has declined.
Trump told NBC that he had asked Comey on three occasions whether he was personally under investigation.
“I actually asked him, yes. I said, ‘If it’s possible would you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation,’” Trump recounted, repeating an assertion made when the White House announced Comey’s firing Tuesday.
US presidents are normally at pains to avoid any suggestion of interference or even commenting on ongoing investigations.
The FBI typically does not confirm their existence.
Noted legal scholar Laurence Tribe told AFP that if Comey did indeed answer Trump’s question, it would violate Department of Justice rules and “would be unthinkably unethical and unprofessional in this situation.”
Trump also said that at the dinner, he and Comey discussed whether the US top cop would continue his 10-year term.
Asking such a question “would come close to bribery... or at least obstruction of justice, which Comey would’ve had to be an idiot to fall for by offering the assurance sought,” Tribe said.