President Trump’s maybe-nonexistent White House tapes, explained

President Donald Trump
Carlos Barria | Reuters
President Donald Trump

The chatter in Washington in recent weeks has focused particularly around one big question: Has President Donald Trump been taping his conversations in the White House?

Speculation over this topic was kicked off by the president himself just days after he fired FBI Director James Comey. After an anonymously sourced account that Trump asked for Comey's "loyalty" at a private dinner leaked to the New York Times, Trump tweeted one morning that Comey "better hope there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

That was more than a month ago, and since then the White House has been repeatedly asked whether President Trump has been recording his conversations, à la Richard Nixon's infamous Oval Office taping system - and they haven't answered.

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Now, Trump has been so vague about the topic that it's entirely possible and perhaps even likely he doesn't have tapes at all — and that instead, this is some sort of odd attempted bluff.

But it's a tremendously important question. The existence of any tapes could have momentous legal ramifications, because tapes make damn good evidence.

After all, the Watergate scandal truly spiraled out of control for Nixon when investigators discovered that he had taped thousands of hours' worth of his private discussions' with aides. A combination of investigative, congressional, and judicial pressure forced the handover of the tapes. They proved to contain damning revelation after damning revelation, and eventually resulted in Nixon's political demise.

Alternatively, if Comey's testimony was false as Trump is claiming, tapes could theoretically vindicate Trump and expose Comey to perjury charges. (Asked about this possibility during his testimony last week, Comey said, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes.")

Whatever the case, we'll probably find out soon — the House Intelligence Committee has requested that the White House confirm whether it has any tapes of the president's conversations with Comey, and to produce them if they do exist.

Why there might not actually be tapes

It's difficult to imagine that any president of the United States would be so stupid as to record his conversations with aides, since Nixon's decision to do so went down as one of the greatest self-owns in American political history.

Then again, throughout his business career, Trump has had a long history of secretly recording his phone calls with people, as the Washington Post's Marc Fisher wrote last month.

More recently, however, Trump seems to have had a habit of making a different play — of bluffing that he has tapes that will supposedly prove him right in some dispute or another, in an effort to get his opponent to back down.

For instance, two New York Times reporters who covered the 2016 presidential campaign have separate accounts of Trump claiming that he was misquoted in a story and insisting that he had a tape to back him up. In both cases, the reporters say, Trump curiously failed to produce the tape.

So Trump's tape threat could be a bluff designed to get potential witnesses like Comey to question their own recollection of events, fearing that an indisputable tape would come forward and prove them wrong.

By Comey's account, however, he reacted in the opposite manner. After Trump's tweet about tapes, he testified that he "woke up in the middle of the night" because it hadn't dawned on him that "there might be corroboration for our conversation" — corroboration that could prove his own side of the story correct.

This, Comey says, spurred him to leak the content of one of his memos documenting his conversation with Trump to a reporter, through an intermediary. It was this leak — the leak Trump that had asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation — that prompted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to recuse himself from the case and appoint Bob Mueller as special counsel. So Trump's threat appears to have backfired.

Returning to the question of the tapes' existence or nonexistence, though, the Secret Service did confirm to the Wall Street Journal on Monday that it had no audio or transcripts of any tapes of Trump White House conversations. That does, however, leave open the possibility that Trump could have gotten somebody else to set up a taping system.

Perhaps the most convincing argument against the tapes' existence, though, is the fact that in this notoriously leaky White House, nothing about a taping system has leaked to the press yet.

At various points in the press briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the president would address the tape issue "in due time," "as soon as possible," and "when he's ready to further discuss it."

And in a press conference Friday, President Trump said he would reveal whether there were tapes in "a very short period of time."

He added, "You're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer."