Donald Trump and His Tapes

Now that Congress wants his tapes, Trump doesn’t have any good options.

Prompted in part by former FBI director James Comey’s testimony and in part by statements and tweets made by President Trump, both the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee sent out requests for any tapes or other records that the White House possesses that could clarify which one of them is the big fat liar. Requests were also made to James Comey, the FBI, and a law professor at Columbia University (who Comey used as a conduit to the media) to provide copies of Comey’s memos on his conversations with the president.

Now, it should be obvious that these requests would not be made if the truth doesn’t matter. If it turns out that there are tapes that prove the president did precisely what Comey says he did and the response is to do nothing about it, that will make everyone wonder why the truth was sought at all.

Personally, I doubt that tapes exist. If they do exist and they back up the president, I still don’t expect that we will all be listening to them soon. If they exist and the back up Comey, then those tapes will be destroyed rather than turned over.

There is one potentially complicating factor for Trump, and that has to do with the willingness of his White House counsel to engage in a coverup.

The leaders of the House Russia investigation, Reps. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, and Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, sent a request Friday directly to Comey for copies of his memos. They sent a separate request to Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn, for any record the White House had of their meetings.

Trump needs McGahn to put his neck on the line if there are incriminating tapes or other records and he doesn’t intend on producing them. Trump values loyalty highly and I don’t doubt that McGahn is highly loyal, but the prospect of federal prison time puts a lot of stress on even the tightest relationships.

If no tapes or other records exist or ever existed then Trump will have to admit that soon or find himself crosswise of multiple congressional committees, and probably Bob Mueller’s investigation as well.

If tapes and records do exist and he has no intention of producing them, then he will have to lie and “admit” that they don’t exist.

There’s one scenario that is unlikely but interesting to contemplate. Imagine if Trump has tapes that would prove Comey is a liar but can’t afford to admit that he’s been taping because it would open him up to having produce different conversations with different people that would be far more damaging. In other words, if he’s been taping he probably doesn’t want to admit that even if it would help him in this one case.

By far the least likely scenario is that the records exist that back Comey and that Trump will produce them. The only way that could happen is if someone like McGahn decides they’re not lying for Trump. Even then, though, I’d expect them to resign rather than sell Trump out.

I guess the most outlandish possibility is that Trump would arrange for records to be doctored in an effort to prove his innocence. He’d need a lot of help with that project, and I kind of doubt he could find it or that he’d get away with it if he was dumb enough to try.

Add this all up, and the odds are heavy that Trump will soon confess that he has no tapes and insist that he has no records, even if he does have them.

This will make him look stupid, and it’s risky if it’s a lie. But it’s still less perilous than admitting he’s been taping, especially if that compels him to produce records that prove his guilt.

And that word “guilt” is my main point here. People can make excuses for the president and say that he’s a political novice or that he didn’t intend to violate any laws. But the only reason to request these records is if it actually matters whether or not Comey is telling the truth. If Comey can be right and Trump can still be innocent, then what’s the point in trying to figure it all out?

Just that fact that Congress is demanding these records is an acknowledgment that Comey’s charges, if true, are very serious.

If Trump has been bluffing about the tapes, he can keep this at the level of two different versions of a story that no outsider can arbitrate. Most people will disbelieve him, and admitting his bluff will further hurt his credibility. But it’s a survivable position for him, especially with a Republican Congress.

But if there really are tapes, Trump is damned if he produces them and in big trouble if he doesn’t. If he produces them and they prove him right, he’ll still be vulnerable to new requests for tapes on other matters. Most likely, though, the tapes would take him down as quickly as they took down Nixon.

And if he doesn’t produce them, he’s going to have to manage a coverup that will require a willingness from some of his staff to take personal risks that may not be forthcoming. His White House is hardly known for its ability to keep secrets.

All of this, of course, is just on the narrow issue of the tapes. And the tapes may be the least of his problems.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.