WASHINGTON — Donald Trump said he had a secret.
He dangled it on Twitter. He parried reporters’ questions about it. He milked the moment, drawing out the drama for weeks.
That big tease played out in 2011, when Trump promised to reveal what his private investigators had found in Hawaii about President Barack Obama's birth certificate. (Trump never did release anything.)
Now, Trump has stretched out a new high-stakes guessing game, this time in the White House, by hinting that he might have recordings of his conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey.
Trump is expected to answer the tapes question this week.
If they do exist, they could become a central piece of evidence in the Russia investigation that has transfixed Washington and cast a shadow over the future of Trump's presidency. If they don't, questions will be raised about why the president would stake his reputation and political capital on promoting something that just isn't real.
Several outside advisers who speak to Trump regularly said the president has not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. White House aides have been known to grimace when the subject comes up, and more than a half-dozen staffers said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.
Whether the tapes exist or not, this is far from the first time that Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.
“I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant. “He's not a professional politician. He doesn't come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I'll outbluff you.’”
The latest chapter in Trump's tale of mystery began last month, just days after he fired Comey, then leading the investigation into contacts between the president's campaign and Russian officials.
A New York Times report cited two unnamed Comey associates who recounted his version of a January dinner with the president in which Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty. Comey declined, instead offering to be “honest.” When Trump then pressed for “honest loyalty,” Comey told him, “You will have that,” the associates said.
Trump tweeted the next day that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
That immediately evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon's downfall during Watergate. 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.
Comey has claimed that any recordings would support his claims that Trump asked him to pledge loyalty and to drop the investigation into Trump's former national security adviser.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey declared at a congressional hearing.
But the president has steadfastly refused to clarify whether any tapes exist.
Two weeks ago, he teased reporters in the White House Rose Garden by saying that he'd explain “maybe sometime in the very near future.” He cryptically added: “You are going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer.” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said Wednesday that an answer would be provided this week, presumably by the Friday deadline set by the House intelligence committee for turning over any tapes.
Trump's private counsel, Marc Kasowitz, would not be involved in the handover of any tapes, his spokesman said. A White House spokesman did not respond to a question on whether White House counsel Don McGahn would have a role.
The Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded within Trump's White House, according to a freedom of information request submitted by The Wall Street Journal. But that doesn't exclude the possibility that recordings were created by another entity.
At his office in New York, Trump was known to worry about possible listening devices, but he also occasionally taped his own phone conversations. Some campaign workers also believed Trump had a system set up to record phone calls.
Trump has a long history of making outsized claims. In the 1980s, he got ensnarled in a battle over a valuable tract of property on Manhattan's west side he dubbed “Television City,” claiming without proof that major TV networks had promised to build there, according to George Arzt, press secretary for then-Mayor Ed Koch. The project never was built.
“This is all about gamesmanship for him,” said Arzt. “It doesn't matter what the outcome of the gamesmanship is. He's a showman and it keeps him in the headlines. There haven't been repercussions if his bluff fails.”
Trump flirted with presidential runs in 1988 and 2000 before abandoning them. He offered to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2004 but never followed through. And his embrace of birtherism, which questioned whether Obama was born in the United States and eligible to become president, fueled his political rise. He claimed to have sent investigators to Hawaii and teased their possible findings for months, but never produced any evidence.
The pattern has continued since his election.
Sometimes he's delivered on the tease: He spent weeks building suspense about whether the United States would remain in the Paris climate agreement and eventually announced in a lavish Rose Garden ceremony that the U.S. would pull out.
But other times he has not. On New Year's Eve, he claimed he knew “things that other people don't know” about foreign hacking of last year's election, and that the information would be revealed “on Tuesday or Wednesday.” Those days came and went without an answer. In March, he tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge he's never supported.
“He follows the paradigm that no news is bad news,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide. “He knows how to play to America's insatiable appetite not just for news but for drama and interest. He brought that to Washington: you have a mogul sitting in the White House and he's going to keep doing it his way.”
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