Even as the White House refused to comment on whether Trump had recorded any of his conversations with former FBI director James Comey, over the weekend, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called on President Trump to turn over any tapes of conversations with Comey, setting up a potential showdown with the White House as Democrats considered a boycott of the vote on Comey’s replacement. As a reminder, in a stunning announcement on Twitter, Trump last week appeared to threaten Comey to stop communicating with the media, suggesting that he might have tapes of conversations with the fired FBI director. Both Trump and Sean Spicer declined to confirm or deny whether such tapes exist.
Specifically, Trump tweeted on Friday that “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Addressing the latest Trump media firestorm, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the White House must “clear the air” about whether there are any taped conversations. “You can’t be cute about tapes. If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” Graham told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. Another Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah told the “Fox News Sunday” program that if there are recordings it was “inevitable” that they would be subpoenaed and the White House would have to release them. Lee, who was reportedly on Trump’s list of potential replacements for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, also said recording conversations in the White House is “not necessarily the best idea.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have accused Trump of attempting to hinder the FBI’s probe and have called for some type of independent inquiry into the matter. Furthermore, Trump’s tape threat intensified calls from Democrats for an independent probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump must immediately provide Congress with any tapes and warned that destroying existing tapes would violate the law. Schumer also said Senate Democrats are weighing whether to refuse to vote on a new FBI director until a special prosecutor is named to investigate Trump’s potential ties to Russia.
“To have that special prosecutor, people would breathe a sigh of relief because then there would be a real independent person overlooking the FBI director,” Schumer told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. Trump, who has sought better relations with Russia, has continued to question whether it was behind the hacking of email accounts belonging to Democrats involved in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Separately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program there is no question that “the Russians were playing around in our electoral processes.” He defended Trump’s decision to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office last week.
“It’s in the interest of the American people, it’s in the interest of Russia and the rest of the world that we do something to see if we cannot improve the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers in the world,” Tillerson said.
Meanwhile, as The Hill reports on Monday, the tape controversy has thrust deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein into the spotlight. Rosenstein, a 27-year Justice Department veteran, was little known outside of government circles until Tuesday.
That’s when White House hung its decision to fire Comey, who lead the FBI investigation into potential ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia, on a memo Rosenstein wrote criticizing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Ironically, Rosenstein’s notion that Comey overstepped his bounds, broke protocol and generally politicized the Clinton investigation is accepted by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as many legal scholars and law enforcement officials.
But the White House’s changing story on the role Rosenstein’s memo played in Comey’s firing has become central to the controversy and reportedly drove Rosenstein to threaten to resign – a claim he denies.
Rosenstein has been in the fire before, working on Ken Starr’s independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater affair during the Clinton administration
Also over the weekend, the DOJ began interviewing candidates for the FBI director job on Saturday. Some people under consideration include acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, New York Appeals Court Judge Michael Garcia and former Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, according to a White House official.
If a Senate vote on a new FBI director breaks down along party lines, Democrats would not have the votes to block a nominee because Republicans hold a majority in the chamber. “The key is getting some of our Republican colleagues to join us,” Schumer said. Here McCain is looking increasingly likely to side with the Democrats again, as he did during last week’s Senate vote.
Republican leaders in the Senate have rebuffed calls for a special prosecutor, saying it would interfere with ongoing congressional probes. Graham said there may come a time when a special prosecutor is needed but not now. “Right now, it is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. So you don’t need a special prosecutor,” Graham said on “Meet the Press.”