US President Donald Trump has threatened sacked FBI director James Comey with “tapes” of their conversations to prevent him from revealing damaging information about their exchange, adding one more element to comparisons with Watergate, one of the darkest chapters in US politics.
Trump also threatened to cancel the daily news briefing at the White House, a longstanding practice, as he tried to assume control of the media coverage of Comey’s firing for reasons that have continued to shift and change, reflecting a White House in complete chaos.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted on Friday, preceded by his threats to cancel briefings “...Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
The suggestion of the tape came as a chilling reminder of the Watergate scandal, during which it had emerged that former President Richard Nixon used to record conversations in the White House. Comey’s dismissal has already been compared to Nixon’s sacking of a special prosecutor dealing with the case in what is now remembered as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Comey was investigating allegations of Trump’s campaign aides being in contact with Russia, which the US intelligence concluded was meddling in the 2016 presidential election to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances and tilt the scales in Trump’s favour.
After Comey was dismissed on Tuesday, the White House first attributed the decision to recommendations from the justice department, a version of events duly recounted by surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence. However, the White House subsequently conceded it was Trump’s own decision and that he had been wanting to let him go since his election.
Trump took full responsibility for it in an interview with NBC news on Thursday, calling Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander”, saying it was “my decision” and “I was gonna fire (him) regardless of the recommendation (of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein)”.
As Trump sought to cap the story, blaming Comey’s dismissal on his apparent unsuitability for the job, an alternative account began emerging of what might have gone wrong.
The New York Times reported Trump demanded loyalty from the FBI chief just seven days after assuming office. According to an account of the conversation which Comey conveyed to some associates, he told the president he could not give that pledge.
Comey told Trump he would be “honest” with him, to which, according to the published account, Trump asked if it could “honest loyalty”. The FBI director reportedly said yes.
Trump gave a different account of a dinner with Comey in his interview to NBC, saying the FBI director had sought it and had during the course of it asked to continue to head the investigating agency.
But his tweet about “tapes” could have been prompted by the New York Times report. And the tweet about press briefings was caused by criticism of the White House changing both the story and the timeline leading up to the firing.