As the Donald Trump administration began interviewing candidates for a new FBI director over the past weekend, it came under mounting bipartisan pressure to release tapes of the president’s conversations with James Comey, if they existed.
Democrats have threatened to block the confirmation of the nominee, when there is one, if the justice department did not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of Russian meddling in polls and collusion by Trump campaign aides.
The president set off a firestorm last week, bringing back memories of the Watergate scandal, when he sought to prevent Comey, whom he fired in a move few saw coming, from leaking information by threatening him via a tweet with “tapes” of their conversations.
The White House has repeatedly refused to either confirm or deny the existence of the tapes Trump was referring to, but there have been reports since that the president, as a businessman, routinely recorded conversations on phone or in his office.
Lawmakers from both parties are demanding the release of the Comey tapes. “If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on a Sunday news show on NBC, adding, “You can’t be cute about tapes.”
Two leading Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Elijah Cummins and John Conyers, demanded the same in a letter to the White House last week: “Under normal circumstances, we would not consider credible any claims that the White House may have taped conversations of meetings with the president. However, because of the many false statements made by White House officials this week, we are compelled to ask whether any such recordings do in fact exist … If so, we request copies of all recordings in possession of the White House regarding this matter.”
Democrats demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor to lead the Russia probe, threatening to block the confirmation of whosever is nominated. “We will have to discuss it as a caucus, but I would support that move,” Chuck Schumer, leader of the Democratic party in the Senate, told CNN in an interview on Sunday.
The justice department held what they are calling “substantive discussions” with eight candidates for FBI director this past weekend and the president indicated he could finalise a name before he leaves for his first foreign trip as president this Friday, who will have to be confirmed by the senate.
Democrats can’t block the nominee as threatened because Republicans have 52 members in the Senate — one more than the simple majority needed to clear the nomination. And no Republican senator is expected to break with the party on this, though some of them appear to be keen to distance themselves from Trump, given the tumultuous events of the past week.
Trump stunned Democrats and Republicans alike by firing Comey and the White House completely muddled the rollout of the decision, fixing responsibility first on an official of the justice department directing overseeing the FBI.
The president finally took full responsibility for it. It was his decision to fire Comey, he said, adding the director had been “showboating” and “grandstanding”.
While the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president and Trump was within his rights to sack him, the timing of the dismissal, coming as it did in the middle of the FBI’s probe of the Russia meddling and Trump campaign collusion, raised many questions about the decision.
But, as Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN and someone who has not always agreed with the president on important foreign policy issues, said on ABC on Sunday, “The president is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire anyone he wants.”