Donald Trump and the tangled tale of the tapes

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When Donald Trump gets in one of his frequent jams, caught between his own words and the truth, he likes to allude to the existence of tapes that will exonerate him.

He did it in his confrontation with former FBI director James Comey over what was said in their private Oval Office meeting, leading to Comey’s famous expostulation to Congress: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes!” (There weren’t.) He did it just last week, disputing a British newspaper’s account of him insulting Prime Minister Teresa May, offering to supply reporters with tapes of the interview “for your enjoyment if you’d like it.” (The White House never followed up when Yahoo News requested the tapes, and the newspaper in question, the Sun, eventually released a clip that seemed to show Trump had said exactly what had been reported.)

In fact, tapes (audio and video) have more often gotten Trump into trouble than out of it. There was, of course, the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that nearly derailed his campaign one month before the election. There is (or isn’t) the rumored “pee tape” of Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room during his brief visit there in 2013, a recording supposedly in the possession of Russian intelligence, which in some people’s minds explains his otherwise inexplicable deference to Vladimir Putin. There are countless hours of outtakes from his 14-year run as host of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” in which he either did or did not say or do something reprehensible. While there’s no evidence for all or most of these recordings, the potential that they do exist supplied the premise for an upcoming television show in which comedian Tom Arnold details his search for compromising Trump clips.

One thing Arnold almost certainly won’t find is a tape of the private conversation Trump had with Putin in Helsinki Monday. The two presidents met for more than two hours with only their translators present, and only those four know what was said — unless, as former CIA Director John Brennan suspects, Russian intelligence was listening in.

“I think whatever Trump said in that meeting is now memorialized on Russian tape and will be used as necessary by Putin against Trump,” Brennan said in an appearance on “Morning Joe” Tuesday morning.

Putin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and the ongoing probe into whether Trump’s team colluded with the Russian mischief makers have brought spycraft into the spotlight in a way that hasn’t been seen since the height of the Cold War. A dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele raised the possibility that the Kremlin possesses embarrassing information about the commander in chief. The question came up at the president’s press conference with Putin when a reporter asked if Moscow has “any compromising material on President Trump or his family.” Putin laughed at the notion, but didn’t explicitly deny the existence of what Russian intelligence — which has a specialty in the sexual and financial blackmail of prominent Westerners — calls “kompromat.”

“Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow,” Putin said. “Now, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect. But back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.” (That assertion runs contrary to reporting in the book “Russian Roulette,” co-authored by Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff, that Putin had been expected to meet with Trump backstage at the Miss Universe pageant and canceled at the last minute.)

If Trump does find himself caught on secret recordings, it would represent one of his favorite weapons turned against him. During his real estate career, Trump earned a reputation for surreptitiously taping his employees and associates. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen also was rumored to record his conversations for him and his client, for potential use as leverage. And Arnold and others have suggested that Cohen’s recordings could come back to haunt Trump since they likely fell into the possession of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia.

Trump has also demonstrated a preoccupation with the possibility that others are taping him — most famously last year when he tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” a claim it took the Justice Department six months to debunk. In fact, he reportedly didn’t even want White House stenographers to do their job of recording and transcribing his conversations with reporters, according to one who worked in both the Obama and Trump administrations. A deputy White House press secretary “told my colleague we would need to keep our microphones far away from the president’s face,” Beck Dorey-Stein wrote in the New York Times Tuesday.

If Trump is so averse to being taped, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had a warning for him: that Putin, a former KGB agent, could have taken advantage of the summit to plant a bug with the president. He suggested Trump should get rid of a World Cup souvenir Putin presented to him with during their meeting on Monday.

“Finally, if it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House,” Graham wrote on Twitter.


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