After a cascading series of controversies created in large part by Donald Trump’s Twitter account, the president took to his preferred medium again on Thursday to float another conspiracy theory: the Oval Office itself could be under surveillance.
Trump ended speculation on Thursday about whether he had installed a recording device in the Oval Office and made “tapes” of his conversations with former FBI director James Comey, a possibility he first raised in another tweet in early May. “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” he wrote.
But then, unprompted, he floated another possibility: U.S. intelligence or law enforcement officials might have his office bugged. “With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey,” Trump wrote.
It was a bizarre suggestion that took some in the White House off guard. “No clue what the thinking was,” a White House staffer said of the tweets. “He could’ve just said there are no tapes. It’s baffling, frankly.”
Instead of putting the “tape” issue to rest and leave it at that, Trump’s statements threaten to embroil the White House in yet another round of politically inconvenient questioning about issues—Comey’s firing, the FBI’s probe into Russian election-meddling, and Trump’s reported efforts to hobble it—that the White House has tried, with little success, to move past.
Informed of the president’s denial that he had recorded his conversations with Comey, a senior administration official replied, “At least that’s behind us.” When alerted to his apparent suspicions of Oval Office surveillance, the official replied in a text message, “fml.”
That’s shorthand for “fuck my life.”
Trump’s tweets came just minutes before White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was scheduled to brief reporters. Asked about Trump’s vague allegations of a potential wiretap, Sanders suggested that law enforcement authorities would have to answer whether they have the President of the United States under surveillance.
“I think those are questions you’d have to ask those law enforcement agencies,” Sanders said when asked if the president suspected he was being monitored by the CIA, the FBI, or another agency. “There’s public record that talks about surveillance, that talks about unmasking, we know those practices take place.”
“I don’t know specifically if there’s a direct concern” about Oval Office surveillance, Sanders said. Questions “about specific instances” should be directed to the relevant agencies.
But Sanders also offered a clue about what the motivations for Trump’s tweet might have been. Asked on Thursday if Trump’s “tapes” tweet was an effort to get Comey to “tell the truth” about their conversations, Sanders said it “was more about raising the question of doubt in general.” She then ended the press briefing before any followup questions could be asked.
The White House feels that Trump’s Thursday statements should put the issue to rest. "The president’s statement via Twitter today is extremely clear. I don’t have anything to add," Sanders told reporters. But if Trump thought he put his White House tapes controversy to rest, his congressional inquisitors were decidedly unsatisfied.
On June 9, the House intelligence committee requested that Trump’s White House lawyer, Don McGahn, confirm the existence of any Comey-related tapes and turn over to the committee’s inquiry into Russian election hacking by June 23 – this Friday.
On Thursday, the panel’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff, said Trump’s team still owed the committee a formal written response as to the existence or nonexistence of the tapes, and said he would seek confirmation from unnamed “other witnesses” for a truthful answer.
“If the President's statement is accurate, it of course raises as many questions as it answers, the most significant being: If the President had no tapes, why did he suggest otherwise? Did he seek to mislead the public? Was he trying to intimidate or silence James Comey? And if so, did he take other steps to discourage potential witnesses from speaking out?” Schiff said in a statement.
But even critics of Trump say the witness-tampering allegation is unlikely to fly – at least, not in a courtroom.
“The president’s tweet was not witness tampering,” said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.
“No reasonable prosecutor would charge someone for trying to influence someone to tell the truth through mere non-threatening words. No juror would believe that the FBI director could be intimidated by a tweet like that, anyway.”
Independent efforts to determine if any White House tapes existence will be difficult. The White House itself is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Secret Service, which is not, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that it possessed no such tapes, but couldn’t rule out others possessing them. The Daily Beast has FOIA’d multiple federal agencies to determine if, among other things, tapes from the White House exist concerning Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russia about ISIS. The Daily Beast intends to file an imminent lawsuit to get an answer.
Like a number of other recent controversies involving the White House’s treatment of the FBI probe into alleged Russian election-meddling, that line of inquiry would be directly traceable to Trump’s twitter account, where the president's public statements have repeatedly resulted in politically and legally problematic developments for the White House.
Trump’s initial tweet about potential “tapes” of his conversations with Comey spurred the former FBI director, he told Congress, to share details of those conversations with a friend who then sent the information to reporters.
The resulting reporting on those conversations was politically disastrous for the president. Comey recalled being asked to pledge loyalty to the president and pressured to ease up on an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Had Trump not threatened Comey with the prospect of “tapes” of their conversations, Comey might not have leaked details of his memos. If those details hadn’t become public, the Justice Department might not have been pressured to appoint a special counsel. And without that special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, news that Trump himself is personally under investigation might have been kept under wraps.
With Mueller leading the Russia investigation, Trump again plotted ways to ensure that it would be resolved in his favor. He began floating the possibility of firing Mueller, a move that his advisers strenuously opposed, but that nonetheless received public attention when floated on television by Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, a friend of the president’s.
Just days after Ruddy suggested that firing Mueller was a possibility, news leaked that Trump was personally under investigation for potentially obstructing justice by firing Comey—news that the president appeared to confirm, once again on Twitter, before his legal team attempted to walk it back.
Officials at the time saw that leak as a direct result of threats to fire the special counsel. “Whoever leaked [news of the obstruction investigation] was obviously reading that he was thinking about giving Mueller the boot,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast at the time. Trump “shot himself in the foot again with this cockamamie scheme to get Mueller to play ball.”
Now the concern is that the White House’s vague suggestions about potential Oval Office surveillance by a U.S. law enforcement agency will backfire in a similar manner. At the very least, officials suggested, it will keep attention on the precise issues that the White House is trying to avoid.
“I hope Sarah enjoyed herself today,” said a second senior administration official, referring to Sanders, “because this isn’t going away.”