WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Thursday he never made and doesn't have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI Director James Comey, ending a month-long guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy.
"With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information," President Trump said in his latest tweets, he has "no idea" whether there are "tapes" or recordings of the two men's conversations. But he proclaimed he "did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."
That left open the possibility that recordings were made without his knowledge or by someone else. But he largely appeared to close the saga that began in May, just days after he fired Comey, then the head of an investigation into President Trump associates' ties to Russian officials. President Trump has disputed Comey's version of a January dinner during which the director said the president had asked for a pledge of loyalty.
President Trump responded at that time, via Twitter, that Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
That apparently angry missive triggered a series of consequences each weightier than the last. Comey has suggested that the tweet prompted him to ask an associate to leak damaging information to the media. The resulting news reports built pressure on a top Justice Department official to appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation. That special counsel is now reportedly investigating President Trump's own actions in a probe that could dog his presidency for the foreseeable future.
President Trump's declaration now that there are no recordings appear to settle a key dynamic in that investigation: It's now the president's word against Comey's notes.
Without recordings, Comey's version of his conversations with President Trump — which he documented at the time, shared with close associates and testified about to Congress — will likely play a key role as prosecutors consider whether President Trump inappropriately pressured the lawman to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Investigators will also weigh the credibility of Comey against a president who has shown a wobbly commitment to accuracy.
Thursday's revelation came a day ahead of a deadline to turn over any tapes to the House intelligence committee. The timing drew attention away from the release of the Senate's health care bill, which the White House hopes can provide President Trump a much-needed legislative victory to boost his sagging poll numbers.
President Trump's tweets, old and new, left many perplexed about whether there was motive or strategy behind the whole affair. The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations.
"I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime President Trump confidant, said before the Thursday tweets. "He's not a professional politician. He doesn't come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: 'I'll out-bluff you.'"
President Trump's earlier suggestion about tapes evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon's downfall in the Watergate scandal. Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime.
But the episode tired President Trump's defenders and aides, who for weeks have been dodging questions about the recordings. Advisers who speak to President Trump regularly have said he had not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. More than a half-dozen aides said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she didn't think President Trump regretted the initial tweet. As for his possible motivation, she would only say it was perhaps about "raising the question of doubt in general." She also could not explain President Trump's new reference to possible surveillance.
Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said, "This administration never ceases to amaze me." He said the tweeting is an example of President Trump's "willingness to just kind of make things up."
"It's remarkable the president was so flippant to make his original tweet and then frankly stonewall the media and the country for weeks," Warner said. "I don't know how this serves the country's interests."
This is not the first time that President Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.
President Trump flirted with presidential runs in 1988 and 2000 before abandoning them. He offered to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2004 but never followed through. And his embrace of birtherism, which questioned whether Obama was born in the United States and was eligible to become president, fueled his own political rise. He never produced any evidence.
"I think the president has played the media like a fiddle for two and a half years," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The pattern has continued since President Trump's election.
On New Year's Eve, he claimed he knew "things that other people don't know" about foreign hacking of last year's election, and that the information would be revealed "on Tuesday or Wednesday." Those days came and went without an answer. In March, he tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge he's never supported.
"He follows the paradigm that no news is bad news," said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide. "He knows how to play to America's insatiable appetite not just for news but for drama and interest. He brought that to Washington."
He's also brought trouble to his White House.
At a Senate committee hearing this month, Comey suggested that the president's reference to possible recordings inspired him to disclose to the media through an intermediary a memo he had written of their Oval Office conversation. In that meeting, according to the memo, President Trump told Comey he hoped he would let the Flynn investigation go. Comey said he understood that to be a request to drop the probe.
One week after the memo was disclosed, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation into contacts between Russia and the President Trump political campaign.