All indications signal no White House recording system
Posted June 22
President Donald Trump has let linger -- for six weeks -- his suggestion that conversations inside the Oval Office may be recorded. But all indications, including inquiries to top government officials and government agencies tasked with tracking White House information and infrastructure, point to no such official recording system existing.
White House officials have said an answer will come by the end of the week. Trump said earlier this month that reporters would be disappointed by the answer, but Congress, through a letter from the House intelligence committee, is trying to compel him to provide an answer by Friday.
The President tweeted on May 12, in response to a New York Times report about fired FBI Director James Comey's dinner with Trump, that Comey "better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
To date, though, Trump has treated the possibility of a White House taping system like a game show, failing to give a definitive answer on whether he was bluffing in his tweet towards Comey. The tweet had serious repercussions for the President, though: The fired FBI director testified earlier this month that Trump's message caused him to leak the bombshell content of a memo to the media through a professor at Columbia University.
Of course, Trump could simply record conversations with his mobile phone or a small recorder, but White House officials have also cast doubt on the likelihood that he would do that.
"It's all hot air," one person inside the White House told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal water-cooler conversations. "Unless he had a recorder in his pocket, this didn't happen."
And a government official familiar with the White House told CNN that no recording device existed -- to their knowledge -- unless the President or one of his close aides used an iPhone or recorder on their own.
Trump has a history of using the prospect of audio recordings to intimidate people close to him.
Tim O'Brien, a Trump biographer, told CNN's Brian Stelter on "Reliable Sources" on June 11 that Trump told him during interviews that he was recording their conversations. But that when the former business magnate sat down for a deposition, Trump "essentially" said he used the threat of tapes to "intimidate" him.
"My attorney said, 'Mr. Trump, do you have a taping system?' And he said no. And he said, 'Well then, why did you say this to Mr. O'Brien?' And he essentially said, 'I wanted to intimidate him,'" O'Brien recounted.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter, echoed O'Brien's point in an interview with The Associated Press.
"I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey," Gingrich told the AP. "He's not a professional politician. He doesn't come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: 'I'll outbluff you.'"
Government agencies tasked with tracking such information -- including the White House Communications Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Secret Service and the Government Services Administration -- echoed the group of skeptical advisers. Each told CNN, through Freedom of Information Requests and press inquiries, that no files in their possession come from a White House recording system.
Vicki Allums, chief FOIA officer for the Defense Information Systems Agency, which oversees the White House Communications Agency, responded to a FOIA request by saying that "no responsive records were located in this agency."
The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees personnel and information technology within the executive branch, told CNN they "conducted a search of its files for documents that are responsive to this request and no responsive records were identified."
CNN had asked for any records regarding the "installation, construction, maintenance or any work associated with recording devices placed into the White House in the time after the November election" as well as "any copies of recordings or transcripts of any type created as associated with such a device."
Both the Secret Service and Government Services Agency responded similarly.
"It appears, from a review of Secret Service's main indices, that there are no records pertaining to your request," the Secret Service said.
And the GSA, which oversees the construction and management of government buildings, said it "does not have any involvement with installations."
White House officials have given a variety of cagey answers when asked about the recording system.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters earlier this month that she will "try to look under the couches" to determine whether there is a recording system.
The most infamous White House recording system existed during President Richard Nixon's administration. The tapes, produced between 1971 and 1973, helped doom the Nixon administration, leading to the President's resignation over the Watergate scandal.
The tapes -- and the 18-minute gap that existed in the recordings -- led to the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, which makes tapes like Nixon's, and possibly Trump's, presidential records that must be preserved.