So we finally know, for sure, that President Trump does not have tapes of his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey. There is nothing more to discuss. The president definitively answered the question he himself floated some 41 days earlier. He tweeted (so we know it must be true), “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”
I suppose it all makes sense. Donald Trump is after all the master of fake-outs, fun diversions that change the topic when the heat is at it hottest. Who can forget the “Obama wiretapped me” tweet when President Trump’s attorney general got himself in trouble by not disclosing his meetings with the Russian ambassador during his Senate confirmation hearings? Hilarious, really. Or how about “there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 election” when it became clear that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote by something like 3 million votes? Another knee-slapper.
Boy are the American people gullible, Trump must think. Psych!
But there is something Trumpian weird about the tweet that asserted that no tapes existed. It sort of suggests that tapes may exist.
Here is the full tweet: “With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have 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.”
Now let’s see here. This implies that someone or some deep state agency or some alien found a way to electronically surveil the Oval Office without the president knowing about it – not the mention the Secret Service who sweeps the White House regularly for bugs.
I know people are starting to grow tired of Watergate analogies, but this cries out for another one. And a good history lesson, frankly, is what the country needs “now more than ever.”
I lecture with John Dean about Watergate in a continuing legal education program that we first rolled out in 2011 – long before we could have guessed that the Nixon presidency would come into such currency with the Trump Administration. So I get a lot of calls for comment from national political reporters.
One – I will not say who – asked me what I thought about Trump’s tweet on the absence of tapes and I said it reminded me of Al Haig.
Al Haig, I said, President Nixon’s chief of staff after he fired H. R. “Bob” Haldeman in 1973. You know, I continued trying to spark some recognition, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, the guy who announced “I am in charge” when Reagan was shot?
No, I don’t know who Al Haig is, she said.
Wow. And this was a national political reporter.
Recognizing it might be totally lost on this reporter, I forged ahead. I said that Trump’s weird tweet reminded me of an equally bizarre claim made by Al Haig during proceedings before Judge John Sirica about the so-called 18-and-1/2 minute gap in one of Nixon’s tapes.
Back in 2014, I wrote a very long article about the famous gap in Max Holland’s Washington Decoded blog. I had found a technician who had been all set to testify in the gap hearings when Nixon resigned and made it all sort of moot. But all these years later, this expert on the workings of the tape machine that Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, supposedly was working on when she accidentally caused part of the gap, told me that what Woods testified to was impossible. She claimed she was working on a transcription when the phone rang. She kept her foot on a pedal for the machine and leaned over to answer a five-minute call. She thought she had erased over the tape and told Nixon of her error.
But the technician told me that the machine was fool-proof. One needed to use two hands – one to depress record button and another to depress the play button – to cause a record-over. Keeping a foot on a pedal would not have done it.
Whether or not Woods did erase five minutes is unlikely, but even so, she was adamant – she only talked for five minutes. The gap was eighteen minutes. What accounted for the difference? Al Haig was asked when called to the stand.
His answer was a Trump-like beauty. “Perhaps there had been one tone applied by Miss Woods... and then perhaps some sinister force had come in and applied the other energy source and taken care of the information on that tape.”
After testifying, Haig told a gaggle of reporters gathered outside the courtroom that he thought Woods was responsible for the entire erasure after all. “I’ve known women who think they’ve talked for five minutes and then have talked for an hour,” he said.
The reporters wondered if Haig had ever asked the president if he might have altered the tape. Haig, “looking somewhat pained, shook his head negatively.”
What we know all these years later is that Alexander Haig was the only person with the key to the tapes for a critical two-week period when the gap was probably created.
Did Haig create the gap and then hope to divert attention with a crazy statement that “sinister forces” caused the gap? He sure seems like someone who might be speaking the truth in a lie – maybe he was the “sinister force” himself?
Whatever the case, President Trump’s qualification in his tapes’ tweet also makes one wonder if he is hinting that tapes may exist. Or even more sinister, that tapes existed that have been destroyed. Who knows? One also wonders why it took over a month for President Trump to give the answer that no tapes existed. Did some people listen to them during that time and decide they were too hot?
In Nixon’s case, there are those to this day who think President Nixon could have saved his presidency by destroying the tapes. It would have been Nixon’s word against his young White House Counsel.
Maybe no one remembers our history, like the political reporter I talked to. But perhaps someone in the Trump White House decided to read up on Watergate history and they decided that releasing tapes was more dangerous to a presidency than destroying them.
If so, the problem for President Trump will be that “too many people know,” as John Dean warned Nixon in trying to stop the cover-up. Presumably, if there is someone who knows about the destruction of tapes, it will come out.
Or maybe it was all just a head fake.