President Donald Trump appeared to threaten the former head of the FBI on Twitter on Friday, warning the just-fired James Comey not to leak to the media.
The president tweeted: "Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
It's unclear whether the president's allusion to tapes was a casual remark, or referred to something real. The president's opponents immediately drew Nixonian parallels, referring to the secret White House recordings that fuelled the Watergate scandal.
Democrats asked to know more.
A lawmaker, Raja Krishnamoorthi, sent a letter to the White House attorney with two questions:
- Do secret recordings exist?
- If so, could the White House please provide copies of the president's conversations with Comey; conversations about the hiring or firing of Russia-friendly former general Michael Flynn and the meeting this week with Russia's ambassador and foreign minister?
The president's threat came in a series of frustrated morning tweets that called the Russia investigations a witch-hunt, threatened to cancel White House press briefings, accused the media of conveying fake news and lamenting that people were making a big deal out of the occasional erroneous statement from his staff.
The morning rant came after media pointed out contradictions in his story of the Comey firing.
A main one was the notion peddled by the White House that the firing was a response to a suggestion from the deputy attorney general — which Trump has said isn't true. He's said he wanted Comey gone and would have fired him regardless.
Another point of contention was whether the president received an assurance from Comey he was not being investigated. Trump says so. But now stories are appearing in multiple news reports, with details of a Comey-Trump dinner that contradict that assertion.
And that was the context for the president warning him to keep quiet.
A Yale law professor calls the threat deceptive — but not clearly illegal. Steven Duke, a professor of criminal law at Yale Law School, said the definition of blackmail in U.S. law is a bit vague.
"Our extortion statutes are extremely vague, leaving room at least for an argument that almost any threat is extortion," Duke said. "Trump could claim that he was only trying to motivate Comey to tell the truth and he was not seeking to induce Comey to do anything other than remaining silent or telling the truth."
Duke said the more interesting question is why Trump keeps piling one deception atop another: "Trump knows there are no tapes of his conversations with Comey; that’s why he can falsely claim that Comey assured him that he was not under investigation."
Meanwhile Friday, Trump lawyers announced that he had only minor financial dealings with Russia over the last 10 years.
That came in response to questions from lawmakers, who are increasingly focusing on Trump's finances. They have asked for documents from the Treasury Department's foreign money-laundering unit.
That same unit fined Trump's Taj Mahal casino $10 million in 2015 for long-standing, repeated, violations of money-laundering reporting rules. Trump also did real-estate deals with a Russian formerly convicted of money-laundering — but that was just over 10 years ago, outside the time period alluded to by Trump's attorney.