This article has been updated.
President Trump issued a not-terribly-veiled threat to former FBI director James B. Comey in a tweet Friday morning.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
For a guy who has spent the past week being compared to Richard Nixon for firing a man who was investigating his campaign, it was an odd threat to level. Nixon, of course, was undone in part by the things that he recorded himself saying in the Oval Office. Which raises an interesting question: Do presidents still record those conversations? Does Trump?
At Friday’s daily press briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said that the president “had nothing further to add” beyond the tweet — hardly a denial. But there are other reasons to believe that the answer to those questions is “yes.”
The history of Oval Office taping
Nixon didn’t start the tradition of recording conversations in the Oval Office. That honor belongs to President Franklin Roosevelt, according to a detailed history from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Roosevelt’s system included a microphone hidden in a lamp that connected to a recording device in the basement under the office. He used it to record news briefings, after an incident in which he felt the New York Times misquoted him.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a recording system, too, activated by a button that would turn on a microphone hidden in a fake telephone he kept on his desk. The Post wrote about Eisenhower’s recordings two decades ago, noting that the conversations he chose to tape didn’t seem to have any consistent theme.
When John Kennedy took office in 1961, he increased the number of recording devices, according to the IEEE history, adding microphones behind the curtains in the Cabinet Room and in the White House study. Lyndon Johnson focused on recording telephone calls, include one infamous call in which he ordered some new pants.
Johnson apparently also asked for daily transcriptions of his conversations that he reviewed. He also increased the number of microphones in the Cabinet room, having a number of microphones installed under the table in the room.
Which brings us to Nixon. The Nixon Library details the setup he relied on: seven microphones in the Oval Office, two in the Cabinet room, four in his office in the Executive Office Building and a recording system at Camp David. Few White House employees knew that the system was in place until, of course, the existence of the taped conversations rose to national attention in July 1973 when a staffer revealed their existence to the Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-in.
Historian Michael Beschloss notes that this was supposed to be the end of surreptitious recording.
Presidents are supposed to have stopped routinely taping visitors without their knowledge when Nixon’s taping system was revealed in 1973.
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) May 12, 2017
But there’s some reason to think that it wasn’t.
In 2012, journalist Mark Bowden gave a talk at the Pritzker Military Museum in Chicago about his new book, “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.” As part of the research for that book, Bowden spent 90 minutes interviewing President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The interview went well — until it didn’t.
“As I stood up to say goodbye to the president, I looked down and my tape recorder had died. … That thing had always worked like a charm but there it was, just as dead as a nut on the table. So I said my goodbyes and as I was walking out of the Oval Office with Ben Rhodes, I said, ‘Ben, you’re not going to believe this, but my recorder died in the middle of that somewhere.’”
“‘Ah don’t worry about it,’ he says, ‘we record everything in here. We’ll get you a transcript before you leave.’ And he did.”
That anecdote speaks volumes about the subject at hand: A recorded, transcribed conversation that was apparently conducted without the subject knowing.
Update: A former official with the Obama White House contacted The Post to incdicate that the transcript provided by Rhodes came from a stenographer in the room during the interview. He added that the Obama administration did not secretly record private meetings. This article has been updated throughout to reflect that statement.
Journalist Yashar Ali reported Friday morning that, according to a source within the Secret Service, the ability to record conversations in the Oval Office still exists.
Trump’s history of alleged surveillance
It’s important to note that, if it does, there’s good reason to think that Trump would embrace its use.
BuzzFeed has reported several times on alleged use of recording devices by Trump at his homes and properties. In October last year, reporter Aram Roston wrote that two Trump golf clubs had pervasive monitoring systems that were tracked constantly, citing sources who worked at the facilities. Previously, Roston had reported that Trump had the ability to listen to any conversation taking place on the phone lines at Mar-a-Lago, again according to employees at the resort.
The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted Friday that her reporting indicated that Trump Tower employees were concerned that their offices were bugged.
Periodic reminder of @AshleyRParker and I reporting that Trump aides feared their offices in Trump Tower were bugged by higher-ups.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) May 12, 2017
Trump staffers have made threats to expose recordings similar to Trump’s. Social media director Dan Scavino tweeted this week that he had Huma Abedin’s election night concession call recorded and that he would soon share it.
More to the point, communications staffer Omarosa Manigault upended a dispute with reporter April Ryan in February by claiming to have a recording of an altercation between the two “steps from the Oval Office.”
Where did the recording come from? “The encounter was recorded by an unidentified White House media employee, according to Manigault, who said the tape backs up her claim that Ryan’s account is false,” our Paul Farhi reported. He added:
Manigault, who earned a villainous reputation while a contestant on Trump’s reality shows “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” asserted that White House media staff regularly records interviews between reporters and officials. “We do it all the time,” she said. “When you come into, you’re on the record.”
An automated recording system would certainly do the trick in that regard.
So we know that the Oval Office — and other parts of the White House — have had recording devices in the past. We know that a Trump adviser claimed to have a recording of a conversation that took place near the Oval Office. We know that Trump has, in the past, allegedly embraced the use of surveillance tools. Put together? It seems likely he has Comey on tape.
For his part, the former FBI director doesn’t seem to be too worried about their being released.