President Trump is messing with the wrong guy.
If anyone were to have recorded the conversations between the President and FBI Director James Comey, as Trump has suggested, it would have been the commander-in-chief himself, numerous experts said Friday — but it’s probably just a bluff anyway.
Trump, however, doesn’t appear to have any idea how misguided that kind of threat is — even if it is only a sham designed to intimidate Comey.
“He’s going after him foolishly,” Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent who led the agency’s Seattle office, told the Daily News. “If Trump thinks that, just because that worked in his business days with unions and other executives and real estate people, he is severely mistaken.”
“It’s a bluff … he realized he said some things he should not have during his NBC interview and he’s worried that Jim is going to contradict everything he said,” Montoya, who retired from the bureau last year, added. “He’s scared, and I think he’s trying to bully Comey.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush, added that threat amounted to Trump “stirring the pot, not that he literally has taped the FBI director.”
Doing so, however, would have been as easy as Trump putting a smartphone in his pocket and using a recording application, John Dean, who served as former President Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel, told The News.
“It’s that simple, they have wonderfully sensitive digital recorders on them now,” Dean said.
“Trump can tape anything anywhere inside the District of Columbia and not tell anyone,” he added. “In fact, it would have been perfectly legal” for either of them to tape the other one, said Dean, who as a Nixon staffer helped expose the Watergate scandal that took down his boss’ presidency, citing Washington, D.C., laws dictating that only one party must know whether a conversation is being recorded.
“But as a matter of practice, I doubt either did it and that it’s just another bluff from Trump,” he continued.
Comey, who was abruptly fired by Trump earlier this week, had been scheduled to testify to a closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday regarding the panel’s ongoing probe into whether members of the President’s campaign and transition team coordinated with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
In that hearing, Comey would have been likely to explain in even greater detail his account of the conversations he had with Trump in the weeks leading up to his termination.
But the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said Friday that Comey would not appear that day, without providing further information.
Conflicting stories have emerged this week from Trump and associates close to Comey over whether Trump had asked Comey if he was under investigation and over whether Comey had answered.
The different accounts prompted Trump to tweet on Friday a veiled threat to Comey regarding the existence of recordings of their conversations.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted, leading to a flurry of concerns over whether the President would have taken the extraordinary step of surveilling his own FBI chief.
Most presidents, dating back to 1940 (and even including Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower) secretly recorded routine conversations, according to research conducted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
In the years since Watergate, however, that kind of measure has largely been limited to conversations only with foreign heads of state and high-ranking foreign diplomats, Dean said.
The idea, meanwhile, that Comey would have taped the conversation is virtually impossible, Dean and Montoya agreed.
“We do this in mob cases, drug cases, terrorism cases. Trump would have had been under investigation for murdering an intern for that kind of tactic to be used by Jim,” Montoya said, adding that Comey would have never been granted the required permission from the U.S. Attorney General for such a move anyway.
Far more likely, the pair agreed, would be a scenario in which Comey, following a dinner with Trump where the President allegedly asked if he was under investigation, would have prepared a memo about the conversation and shared it with a small number of close associates at the bureau.
“Just to make sure there’s a record of it,” Montoya said.
Whether or not Trump made a recording, he’s likely to continue facing serious trouble as the Russia investigation proceeds — regardless of who is leading the FBI’s investigation.
“Nixon didn’t get into this degree of trouble until deep into his presidency, four years,” Dean said of his former boss — the only other commander-in-chief to fire someone leading a probe into his own affairs.
“Trump actually brought into the White House with him a host of scandals. We’re only on day 110 or so. He walked in, baggage overflowing.”
With Cameron Joseph