For O'Donnell and others who have had regular dealings with Trump through the years, there was something viscerally real about the threat implied by the president's tweet Friday morning warning that fired FBI director James B. Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
"Talking on the phone with Donald was a public experience," said O'Donnell, author of a book about his former boss, "Trumped: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump." "You never knew who else was listening."
The president’s tweet remained something of a puzzle Friday, as White House press secretary Sean Spicer rebuffed questions about whether Trump had indeed recorded the three conversations in which he says Comey assured him that the president was not under investigation.
“The president has nothing further to add on that,” Spicer said three times. He refused to say whether the White House still has an active taping system.
It has for most of the past 70 years. In the popular imagination, White House taping started and ended with President Richard M. Nixon’s incriminating recordings of his plotting to cover up the Watergate burglary and other crimes. Nixon’s presidency was ultimately undone in 1974 by the revelation of Oval Office recordings.
But tape recording has been an important and aboveboard part of presidential procedure since a voice-recording system was first installed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to capture the content of news conferences. The recording mechanism was disabled under Dwight Eisenhower and reinstalled by John F. Kennedy, who recorded Oval Office conversations with hidden microphones, securing intimate exchanges about the Cuban missile crisis and other signal moments of those years. Oval Office recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson's colorful, cursing chatter and Nixon's dark scheming have entertained and appalled generations of history students.
More recently, the White House did not have recording devices automatically taping Barack Obama’s phone calls or private meetings, according to a former Homeland Security official familiar with White House security and audio countermeasures. The source said it was unlikely that the Trump administration has changed this, but verbatim records of some private presidential meetings and phone conversations are nonetheless kept in two ways.
The White House Communications Agency, a military office that works with the Secret Service to assure secure communications for the president, video-records some closed presidential meetings and events. And the president’s phone calls have been transmitted since 2011 using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), an Internet technology that sends voice messages as packets of digitized data. The technology allows for retrieval of a text record of presidential conversations.
Trump may have been referring to that technology when he put the word “tapes” between quotation marks in his tweet. The president has sharply criticized people who take literally the words he surrounds with quotation marks in his tweets. When Trump accused Obama of “wire tapping” his Trump Tower office, Spicer said that the president’s use of quotes implied that he was talking about “a whole host of surveillance types of options.”
Two House Democrats on Friday sent a letter to White House counsel Donald F. McGahn, seeking the release of any tapes or other communications between Trump and Comey. Trump’s tweet raised “the specter of possible intimidation and obstruction of justice,” wrote Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and Elijah E. Cummings (Md.). “Under normal circumstances, we would not consider credible any claims that the White House may have taped conversations of meetings with the president. However, because of the many false statements made by White House officials this week, we are compelled to ask whether any such recordings do in fact exist.”
A post-Watergate reform measure, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, requires presidents to preserve and archive recordings made in the White House. The act is built on the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to Nixon’s resignation. The justices unanimously ruled that the president could not claim “executive privilege” against a subpoena seeking audiotapes made in the Oval Office.
Trump’s warning tweet to Comey appeared to be a response to a New York Times report that said Trump had twice asked the FBI director at a White House dinner for the two men if he would promise the president his loyalty. Comey reportedly said that he would offer the president only his honesty.
Trump's fascination with recording his conversations reaches back to the early years of his real estate career, when he installed in his 26th-story office in Trump Tower a "system for surreptitiously tape recording business meetings," according to an eyewitness account in Harry Hurt's 1993 biography, "Lost Tycoon." And BuzzFeed News reported last year that Trump listened in on calls made by staff at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Trump sometimes informed reporters who were interviewing him by phone that he was recording their conversation.
“By the way, you don’t mind that I’m taping this conversation?” Trump asked a Washington Post reporter last spring.
“No, we’re taping it as well,” the reporter replied. “That’s fine.”
“Okay, good,” Trump said. “And so we are all on this, because I’m taping it also.”
Through the decades, Trump’s top secretaries, Norma Foerderer and Rhona Graff, were upfront about the fact that they listened in on conversations taking place in Trump’s office.
Last May, as three Washington Post reporters interviewed Trump by phone about his finances, Trump pushed back against a question regarding his use of the pseudonym "John Miller" when he talked to some reporters in the 1980s.
Suddenly, the line went dead. The Post reporters called back and reached Graff, Trump’s executive assistant.
“Yeah, I heard you got disconnected,” Graff said. “I heard some of it, though. Boy, those were really negative questions. Do you have any good questions to ask him?”
The continuation of the interview was scheduled for another day.
Visitors to Trump’s office have often recounted moments that indicated that someone outside the office was listening to their conversations.
Last spring, when two Post reporters visited Trump in his office for another interview, Trump, in the middle of telling a story about how he demolished the Manhattan landmark that had stood where Trump Tower is now, asked his guests if they would like something to drink.
In the same quiet voice in which he’d been conducting the interview, Trump said, “Okay, two waters and a Coke.” The interview resumed and less than a minute later, a secretary walked in with the drinks. No one other than the reporters and Trump had been in the office. And Trump never signaled the drink request to anyone outside the office.
Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.