Trump Says He Did Not Tape Comey Conversations

WASHINGTON — President Trump cleared up one of the capital’s least suspenseful mysteries on Thursday, acknowledging that he did not record conversations with James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in anger over an investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

Meeting a self-imposed deadline of this week to resolve questions he himself raised by implying that he had taped Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he had not made tapes of what Mr. Comey has testified were attempts by the president to derail the Justice Department’s investigation.

But if few people believed that Mr. Trump actually possessed recordings, his motives in warning Mr. Comey that he might have taped him remain a mystery, particularly since it set off a chain of events that accelerated, rather than slowed, the investigation into Mr. Trump and Russia.

Mr. Comey testified that it was Mr. Trump’s veiled threat of tapes that led him to authorize the disclosure of memos of his conversations with the president — the details of which prompted the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look into the case.

The timing of the announcement — after an internal debate in which Mr. Trump was at first reluctant to come clean quickly — seemed calculated to change the subject. Hours earlier, Senate Republicans released their heath care bill, which drew immediate opposition from four Republican senators and fanned fresh doubts about the president’s legislative agenda.

“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information,” Mr. Trump said in a pair of tweets posted around 1 p.m., he has no idea “whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

That left open the possibility that the conversations were taped without his knowledge, even by the F.B.I. or intelligence agencies, which eavesdrop and intercept calls. Asked whether Mr. Trump believed he was currently under surveillance in the Oval Office, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

The decision to confirm there were no recordings was made by last weekend, when Mr. Trump and his family made their first getaway to Camp David, according to people briefed on the discussions. The White House counsel’s office reviewed the language in the tweet, these people said, and Mr. Trump’s personal legal team was aware of it. The wording did not change significantly over the past few days.

But by giving the president some room to claim he might have been referring to someone other than himself doing the taping, his wording could diminish the possibility that his original tweet could have been interpreted as pressure on Mr. Comey before his testimony to the Senate.

Yet when shorn of their extraneous details, the tweets essentially confirmed that Mr. Trump had been leveling a baseless threat when he wrote on May 12, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

For Mr. Trump the businessman, who used guile and misdirection in countless real estate negotiations, the episode may have been a classic case of a bluff he then had no choice but to call. But for Mr. Trump the president, it could have consequences.

Some legal experts have said the president’s threat could be used in an obstruction of justice case against him, since it could be interpreted as putting pressure on Mr. Comey not to share details of their conversations about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation.

Mr. Trump’s statement did not satisfy congressional investigators, who said it did not resolve the question of whether the White House had any recordings and it raised questions about his truthfulness.

“If the president had no tapes, why did he suggest otherwise?” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Did he seek to mislead the public? Was he trying to intimidate or silence James Comey?”

Mr. Trump’s original tweet appeared to refer to an article in The New York Times that reported that he had asked Mr. Comey to pledge loyalty during a dinner at the White House shortly after the inauguration. The F.B.I. director rebuffed him, viewing the request as inappropriate.

This month, Mr. Comey testified in detail about that dinner and other conversations, saying the president had appealed to him on multiple occasions not to pursue an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and his alleged links to Russian officials.

Asked during the Senate hearing whether he worried about the existence of tapes, Mr. Comey replied, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Ms. Sanders said that Mr. Trump had promised to answer that question by the end of the week, and that he had delivered on that promise. She also said she did not believe the president’s intention in his original Twitter post about tapes had been to intimidate Mr. Comey.

“The president’s statement via Twitter is extremely clear,” Ms. Sanders told reporters during a briefing from which the White House again banned television cameras.

The episode was yet another example of Mr. Trump’s predilection for sowing confusion and uncertainty. It also, at least temporarily, threw the news media off the trail of the Russia investigation.

Initially, people briefed on the talks said, Mr. Trump clung to the prospect of drawing out an announcement about the tapes, even as some advisers urged him to find a quicker path out.

For weeks, Mr. Trump’s aides and legal team had urged him to stay off Twitter. His personal lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, had told White House officials that the president had turned a corner and agreed to limit his tweets, according to two people briefed on the discussion.

But Mr. Trump has refused to give up his favorite form of venting — one he believes allows him to circumvent the news media. He has also indulged in a longtime practice of using tapes as leverage.

At times, he has told reporters that he was taping an interview or a phone call, but then declined to produce one. Other times, according to former aides, Mr. Trump was believed to have taped calls or conversations in his office at Trump Tower. That made it harder to discern the truth when the president raised the prospect that he had recorded Mr. Comey.

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