President Donald Trump prides himself on being a master of suspense, conspiracy theory, counter-attack and self-promotion.
But when it came time to end the six-week long mystery about whether or not he recorded “tapes” of his conversations with former FBI director James Comey in the Oval Office — the day before a House Intelligence Committee deadline to produce any such tapes — the president deflated the balloon in a very non-Trumpian way.
There was no drawn-out press conference in the lobby of the Trump Hotel, for instance, like the one he staged during his presidential campaign to announce he was finally dropping his false, five-year-long conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama’s birthplace.
Neither was there any stoking the coals of news to come, keeping the guessing game going, as he has done with other much-anticipated White House announcements. “I will be announcing my decision on the Paris Accord over the next few days. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” he tweeted on May 31, three full days before his Rose Garden statement.
And there was no blurting out news in the heat of the moment at a rally – like he did when he made the surprise announcement in the middle of a campaign-style rally in Cincinnati last December that he was choosing James Mattis for defense secretary. Trump kept his mouth closed about the status of the alleged “tapes” even though he had the opportunity Wednesday night to break his news in front of a roaring crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Instead, he put the “tapes” saga to bed in a pair of carefully worded Tweets that were uncharacteristically reviewed by White House officials before being blasted out to his 32.7 million Twitter followers.
“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,” the president tweeted. “But I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”
Trump, according to people familiar with his thinking, often enjoys the theater of the mini-scandals he sets off with his Twitter feed, and throughout his career has enjoyed keeping everyone around him off balance. He sees the fog of confusion he creates as a winning negotiating tactic, according to some of his longtime associates. And his aides have compared his “tapes” tweet to the keep-them-guessing strategy he favors when it comes to foreign policy.
Even among his top White House aides, many were kept in the dark about the status of potential tapes of the conversations Trump had with Comey before deciding to fire him in May, sources said.
But many Republicans close to the Trump White House see the original May 12 tweet – “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” the president wrote online – as a self-inflicted and potentially fatal wound.
The tweets prompted Comey to reveal the existence of memos he wrote detailing his conversations with the president. Those memos ultimately lead to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the expanding investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russian officials — and into whether Trump’s dismissal of Comey was an effort to derail the Russia probe.
“You could chalk up most of his problems of late to that stupid, flippant tweet,” said one Republican operative with close ties to the White House, admitting that it gave Comey cover to release the detailed memos he kept of his conversations with the president.
“I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” Comey said while testifying in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Because of the deadline to explain the alleged “tapes” imposed by the House committee, Trump’s habit of punting into the indefinite future—as he did with a promised news conference about his wife Melania Trump’s immigration history during the campaign that never materialized—wasn’t an option.
On Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders would not say whether the tweets had been reviewed or written by Trump’s attorneys. But allies who remain close to the president said it was the only explanation for the tweets that made any sense to them.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever seen a lawyer have any impact on him,” said one Republican operative who speaks regularly to top White House officials. “So much for always fighting back and never apologizing – this came about as close to an apology as you could get. It was a very non-Trumpian way to handle it.”
Added Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser to Trump: “Perhaps Mr. Kasowitz, [Trump’s personal lawyer] wants to get this off the table because he’s got bigger fish to fry. I think they’re just trying to clear the deck.”
Some of Trump’s fiercest defenders, however, disagreed that Thursday’s concession was a rare moment of Trump backing down. Instead, they tried to spin the succeeding chain of events as a win. “It’s very Trumpian,” said Stone. “He defused this. We’re not going to be arguing about this — we’re going to be arguing about whether Trump leaned on Comey to fix the case for [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn, and he did not.”
Others tried to turn the tables on Comey, whom Trump has characterized as a “leaker” for disclosing the existence of his memos to the New York Times.
“Lordy, now Comey’s ‘memos’ are useless,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide and Trump loyalist. “Are you going to bring a perjury charge against a sitting President based on the word of a fire bureaucrat against the Commander-in-Chief’s? Comey can now take his memos and walk his dog with them.”
In this version of events, Trump’s tweet wasn’t a mistake that resulted in the naming of a special prosecutor who may now be investigating the president. Rather, it was a clever maneuver that forced the behavior of government officials – in this case Comey, a longtime law enforcement official appointed to the FBI role by Obama – into the open.
“It helped expose Comey as a leaker,” said another Republican operative close to the White House. “Trump is using guerrilla tactics to fight the deep state.”
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