NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time since an Oval Office taping system was removed by President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff nearly 44 years ago, a president has hinted that White House conversations might again be secretly recorded. If so, President Donald Trump is following a problematic precedent.
While several presidents secretly recorded conversations without problems, the practice is most associated with Nixon. His recordings became prime evidence during the Watergate investigation that ultimately led to his resignation. Sooner or later, recordings are likely to become public.
“The lesson for presidents since Nixon was, do not tape your Oval Office conversations,” said Timothy Naftali, a professor at New York University and the first federal director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. “It can only get you in trouble.”
Trump tweeted Friday that former FBI Director James Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.”
The extraordinary if ambiguous tweet came three days after Trump fired Comey, who was overseeing the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election and whether anyone in Trump’s campaign was involved.
Trump has rejected the probe as “fake news,” and claimed Comey assured him at a dinner and in two phone calls that he wasn’t under investigation. Comey hasn’t spoken publicly since he was fired, but an associate said Trump’s claims are puzzling, adding that Trump sought a loyalty pledge from Comey during the Jan. 27 White House dinner, which the ex-director declined to give.
That and similar reports apparently led to Trump’s tweet.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer didn’t comment when asked whether Trump recorded Comey or if recording equipment exists in the Oval Office.
Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, has already seized on the tweet and asked that Trump give Congress any recordings of conversations with Comey.
Federal law allows the secret recording of conversations so long at least one person in the conversation is aware of the recording. Trump’s home state, New York, has a similar law. But in Florida, where Trump has his Mar-a-Lago estate, both parties must consent to any recording.
There is a rich history of secret presidential recordings since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tapes of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office helped cement his reputation as a strong leader during multiple crises. Lyndon Johnson also recorded conversations.
But Nixon’s recordings are the most famous. His dismissal of a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who subpoenaed the White House for the president’s tapes marked the beginning of the end of his presidency. Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig had the recording system — complete with five listening devices in the president’s desk in the Oval Office — removed on July 16, 1973, but it was already too late. Nixon resigned a year later.
Trump “is emulating some of the worst aspects of Richard Nixon and for those of us watching from the outside, we have to ask why,” said Naftali. “Why would he bring up the taping system? Why? I’m not saying he has one, but why would any president after Nixon even jest about a taping system?”
Trump worried about recorded conversations — and recording his own conversations — well before he got into politics, according to former Trump Organization executives.
After Trump tweeted in March that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap on his phones in Trump Tower, three ex-employees told The Associated Press that as a businessman, Trump not only worried about possible listening devices in his phones and office but had also occasionally taped his own phone conversations. Trump once denied doing so.
And at his New York office during the campaign, workers believed Trump had a system set up to record phone calls.
“I would note that New York is a one-party consent state and President Trump has always abided by the law,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide, referring to the law that permits taping conversations without the knowledge of one of the participants.
White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.
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