To the shock of no one with a functioning and objective brain, it was finally revealed today that President Donald Trump, contrary to previous public statements, does NOT have any tapes of his conversations with then FBI Director James Comey. This official revelation should be a rather big deal, but much like nearly everything involving Trump, it likely won’t be.
Let’s be very clear about what really happened. After Trump suddenly fired Comey and was stunned by the backlash, word began to “leak” out about Comey’s version of their conversations. Trump then tweeted that Comey “better hope there are no tapes” of those discussions. We now know that Trump (unless he is a complete imbecile) knew when he made that pronouncement that no such tapes existed, and yet he waited several weeks, dodging many opportunities to clarify, before finally admitting that it was all just a bluff.
There will be a temptation to laugh this episode off as yet another example of Trump just being Trump and to not take it very seriously (after all, his cult often tells us he is not to be taken literally). However, the context here should be extremely important.
First, there is the issue of Trump strongly suggesting something that he knew to be untrue and purposely allowing people, including Comey, to believe it for several weeks. I don’t know what that is called in this post-truth era, but where I come from that is still a lie. To a few people (I think/hope), lies by the President of the United States still matter, at least a little.
Second, there is the intent of this deception. You have to remember that Trump was in a crisis, and he needed something for his supporters to hang onto for them not to believe Comey’s version of their conversations. But he also knew that it would be incredibly foolish, even for him, to actually go on the record with his detailed account of what happened.
Even more nefariously, Trump was clearly trying to intimidate Comey, a likely key witness in a criminal investigation, into being afraid to offer specific details of their discussions because it might not match with tapes, which he was using the credibility of his office to strongly suggest existed. It is not hard to imagine that, in Trump’s mind (he didn’t know about Comey’s memos at that time) this would greatly chasten Comey in what he might say or testify to because he would fear being contradicted by audio evidence.
Witness intimidation, like lying, used to be something about which conservatives would have at least pretended to care (at least if Barack Obama or a Clinton did it). However, we now live in an age when “conservative” simply means to defend Trump no matter how silly it makes people look.
Now that Comey has testified and the public furor over the tapes has died down, Trump finally said “never mind” because the lie had outlived its purpose and he is confident that his cult will easily rationalize what he did, or simply forget it as Fox News, Drudge/Breitbart, and talk radio all purposely focus on other “more important” matters. What is most amazing about the timing of this much-delayed announcement is that it stepped all over the roll out of the GOP Senate’s version of the pretend Obamacare repeal.
Third, the practical impact of Trump shooting his mouth off about these non-existent tapes could end up being catastrophic to his presidency. Because of the “tapes” tweet, Comey let the cat out of the bag about his memos and, in turn, this helped provoke the naming of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Much like with his “Muslim Travel Ban,” it sure seems like Trump’s own words turn out to haunt him in the legal arena more than just about anything else possibly could.
This entire episode is classic Donald Trump. Because he wanted to fight back in the middle of a predicament, he told a lie with absolutely no concern or concept of the potential long-term damage to him or the presidency. Then when the lie was no longer useful or tenable he abandoned it, at an inopportune moment politically, all safe in the knowledge that his cult followers will either cheer him for it (“it was brilliant!”), or simply ignore that it ever happened.
I have said many times that the most dangerous short-term impact of the Trump presidency will likely be how dramatically it desensitizes all of us to things which not long ago would have provoked outrage and real consequences. I doubt that there has ever been a better/worse example of this phenomenon than what Trump did with his “Comey Tapes” deception.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.