WASHINGTON – The White House press briefing room was more packed than ever, with wall-to-wall reporters and camera operators.
Friday promised to be an explosive culmination of a combustible week that included the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
And there was a buzz of anticipation rippling through the air after President Trump had begun the day with a flurry of tweets that seemed to promise reporters the opportunity to pursue the prospect of a scandal of Nixonian proportions: secret tape recordings in the White House.
However, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would find a way to burst that bubble and deflate all those high expectations with just a few choice words.
The day began with the president launching a flurry of seven tweets beginning at 4:51 a.m. and finishing by 6:20 a.m.
But it was three in particular that caught the media’s rapt attention:
As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!….
…Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
The mainstream press had already jumped on that third tweet with zeal, well before the daily White House press briefing had gotten underway at about 1:20 p.m.
The prospect of secret tape recordings must have seemed to fit the narrative perfectly, as
CNN declared on Tuesday, “Comey firing draws comparisons to Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre,'” when President Nixon had ordered the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Unabashedly amplifying upon that theme Friday, the Washington Post reported:
Trump’s tweet Friday drew immediate comparisons to President Richard Nixon’s practice of taping his private conversations in the Oval Office.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted, “Presidents are supposed to have stopped routinely taping visitors without their knowledge when Nixon’s taping system was revealed in 1973.”
The New York Times reported:
No president in the past 40 years has been known to regularly tape his phone calls or meetings because, among other reasons, they could be subpoenaed by investigators as they were during the Watergate investigation that ultimately forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign.
Phone calls with foreign leaders, though, are typically transcribed with the knowledge of other participants.
Democrats expressed shock. “For a president who baselessly accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping him, that Mr. Trump would suggest that he, himself, may have engaged in such conduct is staggering,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “The president should immediately provide any such recordings to Congress or admit, once again, to have made a deliberately misleading — and in this case threatening — statement.”
With all this ammunition, the media was ready to pounce.
And they did, with the very first question of the briefing from Reuters’ Jeff Mason, who dutifully asked, “Did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI Director Comey?”
“The President has nothing further to add on that,” simply replied Spicer.
It was as though a lead balloon had dropped. The media suddenly realized there would be no feasting on that red meat of a tweet.
Mason gamely pressed on, asking: “Why did he say that? Why did he tweet that? What should we interpret from that?”
“As I mentioned,” calmly repeated Spicer, “the President has nothing further to add on that.”
“Are there recording devices in the Oval Office or in the residence?” the reporter persisted.
Which evoked the coup de grâce from the press secretary, “As I’ve said for the third time, there is nothing further to add on that.”
Undeterred, Mason made one last stab, asking, “Does he think it’s appropriate to threaten someone like Mr. Comey not to speak?”
To which Spicer responded, “I don’t think – that’s not a threat. He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I’m moving on.”
And that pretty much closed the book on that topic for the day, as it began to become clear the media had been effectively trolled by Trump.
The president hadn’t said Comey had been recorded. He had said Comey should hope he had not been recorded.
That, indeed, left a lot of unanswered questions. Questions the president obviously hoped Comey, and any potential leakers, should consider.
But not questions the White House would be answering.
The mainstream media had already begun trying to answer those questions for themselves. Another Washington Post story on Friday used Watergate reporter Bob Woodward to try to make the comparison between Trump and Nixon.
“In the Trump case, there’s a lot of suspicion — genuine, well-founded suspicion,” Woodward said. “But no John Dean testifying … no comparable evidence trail where there’d be suggestions of a secret taping system or a source of absolutely foolproof evidence.”
And that is a key difference between Watergate and the current investigation into collusion the White House has been pointing out, again and again: there is no evidence for the latter.
It is a point Spicer hammered home again on Friday: not one of the investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government has turned up one scrap of evidence.
The White House acknowledges it is likely the Russian government did try to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
But, as WND has reported, top Democrats have admitted investigators have not found any evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump or anyone associated with him.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who serves on the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, said last week she had seen no such evidence. Other Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have said they don’t expect to find any evidence of collusion.
Fierce Trump critic Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has had to admit there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Obama’s own former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, as well as former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, have said they have seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump team and the Russian government.
But, on Friday, NBC’s Kristen Welker took aim at another morning tweet from Trump that read, “When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?”
Welker stated to Spicer, “President Trump seemed to rely on James Clapper this morning when he tweeted that virtually he and everyone else with knowledge of the ‘witch hunt’ says there’s no collusion.”
She mentioned that Clapper had said that day, “I don’t know if there’s evidence of collusion or not, nor should I.” She added, “He said he hasn’t been briefed. He said he wouldn’t know because he hasn’t been briefed on the investigation.”
Spicer responded, somewhat incredulously, “He was DNI (director of national intelligence) up until January 20th.”
Welker pointed out, “He made the case that he’s not briefed on an FBI investigation, that that’s not his purview.”
After an extended back and forth, Spicer concluded, “I think in this case it is interesting how the story has changed. He made those comments several times over several courses of action.
“And to say that the Director of National Intelligence, who stated unequivocally what his position was on multiple occasions before today, and now suddenly is saying, I wasn’t sure about it – the burden seems to be on him, not us.”
The other Trump tweets that garnered so much attention were those that defended his communications staff, to the point of suggesting he might even consider canceling the daily briefings.
Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had come under withering criticism from the press after Trump gave an interview Thursday in which he said he had been planning to fire Comey even before he received a scathing report on the FBI director from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
As WND reported, reporters grilled Sanders for having stated the day before that the Rosenstein memo was the deciding factor in the firing of Comey.
Sanders noted she had said the last straw for the president actually occurred when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. But Sanders also acknowledged she had not spoken directly to the president before the press briefing, suggesting she may not have had the full story.
Trump came to the defense of his staff in his tweet by stating, “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”
Asked how the administration could improve its communications, Spicer said on Friday, “I think we come out here every day and try to do the best job we can communicating what the president has done and the accomplishments he’s making on the American people. We get here early, we work beyond being here at this podium. As many of you know, we get here early, we work pretty late. We do what we can.
“But the president is an active president. He keeps a very robust schedule, as many of you are very well aware and as you can tell by the activities of next week alone. And I think sometimes we don’t have an opportunity to get in to see him to get his full thinking.
“In those cases, we do our best to follow up with you. But I think that there are times when you, more than not, read a story where someone is trying pin – trying to pull apart one word, one sentence and say, aha, and make it a ‘gotcha’ thing.
“We work very hard to get you the most accurate and up-to-date information throughout the day. We don’t always have the opportunity to get in to see the president, and in those cases, I think we do a pretty good job of following up and getting you the information after the briefing, in a subsequent – so that’s exactly what he meant.”
Spicer also indicated the president was not seriously considering canceling the daily press briefings.
“I think he’s a little dismayed, as well as a lot of people, that we come out here and try to do everything we can to provide you and the American people with what he’s doing on their behalf, what he’s doing to keep the nation safe, what he’s doing to grow jobs, and yet, we see time and time again an attempt to parse every little word and make it more of a game of ‘gotcha’ as opposed to really figure out what the policies are, why something is being pursued or what the update is on this.
“And I think that’s where there’s a lot of dismay, and I don’t think it’s something that just alone the President feels.”