What’s Different About Trump’s White House Tapes?

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tags: Watergate, Nixon, Trump

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington DC, and author of the book-and-CD collection The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President.  For more commentary please visit his website.

President Donald J. Trump refused to speakeven to Fox News—to clarify whether there are actual audiotapes of his before-the-act dinner and telephone conversations with now-fired FBI Director James B. Comey. Earlier that day, May 12, 2017, President Trump had posted a tweet with the already-infamous message that Comey had “better hope” no such tapes exist. As one more in the unending series of distressing eruptions from this president, the tapes tweet is already notorious. But as a fresh episode in the saga of White House taping, Trump’s sally marks a new and sordid departure in an already controversial history.

The obvious parallel is to the audiotapes made in Richard Nixon’s White House, where in 1971 the president had the Secret Service install a self-activating taping system in telephones, tables, and desks, not to mention near fireplaces; in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, the president’s hideaway office, the Lincoln Sitting Room, and one of the lodges at Camp David. Testimony from White House staffer Alexander Butterfield in July 1973 revealed the existence of the system, which had captured a huge array of Mr. Nixon’s conversations, variously tabulated at 3,300, 3,700, or nearly 4,000 hours. Under District of Columbia law, even today, taping is legal so long as one party (in this case, the president) approves the act. Their existence known, the tapes took center stage in the Watergate scandal. It was a revelation from the tapes that forced Mr. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

In his second recorded conversation, with presidential chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, Mr. Nixon depicted his purpose as providing the wherewithal to correct public misimpressions or put a spin on issues. Beyond that lay the potential for settling scores, in a memoir or elsewhere, always dear to Nixon’s heart. President Trump’s tweet surpasses this by a wide margin—the formula that Jim Comey better hope there are no tapes hints at an immediate use of such records to cast the former FBI director as someone who would give improper assurances, as President Trump claimed when he fired the head G-Man. The threat works whether or not there is tape, because at this stage only Trump knows the truth.

Two questions lie at the center of the events beginning to unfold. First, is Donald Trump breaking new ground in presidential behavior? Second, is it reasonable to suppose that tapes do exist?

Despite his “enemies list,” frequently-expressed complaints about politicians and other figures, and Watergate excesses, Richard Nixon is not known to have used his tapes to threaten people. Lyndon B. Johnson is another president to whom many attribute the back alley instincts of this kind—and LBJ recorded over 400 hours of telephone calls and about 200 of meetings. But while Johnson used the knowledge on those tapes to cajole and bend people to his will, there is no record of his threatening anyone. With about 250 hours of recorded meetings and a dozen hours of phone tapes, John F. Kennedy also left no record of using tapes to manipulate.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt each made lesser use of audiotapes, again without machinations. For example, Eisenhower recorded himself to create a record, such as in January 1955 when he enlisted senior Senator Walter George to help him defeat an attempt to limit presidents’ treaty powers. That recording—literally a vinyl disc—was almost lost because the “Tycoon Soundscriber” equipment disappeared into the dustbin of history. Gerald Ford’s attempt at record-making, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on September 1, 1975, turned into a comical “can you hear me now” exchange where no business could finally be transacted. And Richard Nixon’s tapes are quite often rendered useless by the imperfections of the voice-activated recording system. Another danger for the alleged Trump tapes is that technical imperfections may render them useless.

Mr. Trump has charged President Barack Obama with ordering electronic surveillance of Trump headquarters. But existing procedures for warranting such intrusion allow the president no role; the surveillance formed part of a counterintelligence investigation, and its results were not used to intimidate. There is no comparison with Trump’s gambit. President Trump is indeed staking out new territory.

The lesson of Nixon and Watergate was that tapes make presidents vulnerable. Immediate successor Gerald R. Ford used tapes to only a very limited degree. Jimmy Carter, none that we can tell. From Ronald Reagan on, videotapes began to enjoy increasing use, because teleconferencing grew common and records could easily be stored. But President Trump’s assertion about tapes represents a throwback, a suggestion that there may audible records. The Washington Post reports experiences its reporters had a year ago that suggest the existence of a taping system in Mr. Trump’s office. It also noted that since 2011 the White House Communications Agency has been using transmission mechanisms for phone calls that create a tape recording. The supposition must be that tapes do, in fact, exist. Surety would depend on physical revelation—undoubtedly the result of lawsuit.

Press reports are that the alleged Comey assurances occurred in the course of two telephone calls plus a dinner on the evening of January 27, 2017. Mr. Comey may have memoranda for the record with his own account. The most damaging possibility for the chief executive would be if White House tapes confirm Comey’s version not Trump’s. It may be that threats were made based on a misrepresentation of tapes’ contents.

The president is likely to want to shield his tapes from scrutiny altogether, and if Director Comey was threatened using tapes that actually confirm his own account, doubly so. This sets up a confrontation akin to that over the Nixon Watergate tapes. Trump may do what Nixon did not—destroy the tapes. In that case obstruction of justice charges become very likely. Tape destruction would very likely also encourage the emergence of a new Alex Butterfield-like character. Even in the near-term the effort to avoid confirming tapes’ existence, and to prevent them coming into the public domain, will involve statements and actions that press the boundaries of legality.

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