Donald Trump capped a week of Watergate flashbacks in Washington on Friday, as he appeared to channel the ghost of Richard Nixon by threatening his recently sacked FBI director with the release of “tapes” of their private conversation.
In a series of irate tweets, Mr Trump warned the former agency chief against leaking to the press amid conflicting accounts of events leading to the director’s sacking this week. The tweets followed a New York Times report — denied by the White House — that Mr Comey had told associates the president asked him to pledge his loyalty over dinner in the White House.
“James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” the president tweeted. He also took aim at the US media, threatening to end the daily White House press briefings, a mainstay of the modern US political era.
The outcry over Mr Trump’s sacking of Mr Comey has prompted comparisons to Nixon’s decision to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break in. Yet no one has done more to feed the parallels than Mr Trump himself. Earlier this week, the president invited reporters to witness his Oval Office meeting with Nixon White House veteran Henry Kissinger one day after Mr Comey’s firing.
His reference on Friday to “tapes” invited confusion over whether Mr Trump was implying he surreptitiously recorded conversations with White House visitors — a practice that was believed to have stopped with Nixon, whose own secret recordings served as key evidence in the events that ultimately led to his resignation.
Mr Trump’s outburst came amid growing scrutiny over the White House’s account of why Mr Comey was sacked. On Thursday, the president for the first time linked the decision with the FBI’s investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and a Russian effort to influence the 2016 election in the candidate’s favour.
With questions over Russia ties dominating the headlines again, the White House released a letter from the president’s lawyers, which said that their review of 10 years’ worth of Mr Trump’s tax returns showed no income from Russian sources, “with a few exceptions”.
Legal experts have warned that Mr Trump’s tweets at Mr Comey could come back to haunt him if the FBI director’s sacking is examined in a court of law.
In recent months, Mr Trump has repeatedly accused his predecessor of “wiretapping” him during the 2016 election, something he has claimed was unethical if not illegal.
“Obviously, President Trump is confused,” John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel, wrote on Twitter. “He is the one who must hope there are no tapes. Honest people don’t have problems being taped.”
While other US leaders have shied away from Nixon parallels given the politician’s fateful end, Mr Trump appears to have embraced the comparison, in some ways taking up Nixon’s mantle, the Nixon scholar Douglas Brinkley said.
Mr Trump met Nixon in 1989 when the two men attended a gala together in Houston and the New York real estate scion gave the former president a ride back on his plane to New York. The current and former president share a fondness for folksy, salty language — with similarly negative views of the Washington elite and media.
“He’s long been Nixon inspired,” Mr Brinkley said of the president. “During his seminal years, Nixon was a powerful man.”