How Trump’s dubious claims make the entire government react – Washington Post

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The words leapt from President Trump’s mind to Twitter at 8:26 a.m. on the Friday after he fired FBI director James B. Comey, setting off a cascade of activity inside and outside of the federal government to figure out what, exactly, he meant.

“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump wrote.

With that tweet, Trump immediately deepened his own ­legal and political quagmire, evoking comparisons to former President Richard M. Nixon and prompting congressional committees investigating his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia to demand the disclosure of any such recordings. The missive also prompted Comey to release previously undisclosed memos of his conversations with the president, which ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel who is now investigating whether Trump obstructed justice.

Far from knocking down the assertion that Trump had recorded conversations in the White House, his aides refused to give a definitive answer for weeks. Trump, ever the reality television host, teased at a news conference, “I’ll tell you about it over a very short period of time.”

On Thursday, 42 days later, he finally did. As most in Washington had anticipated, Trump said he did not have any such tapes.

The incident highlights a new reality for Washington, which now must spring into action to bolster or refute presidential assertions of dubious origin and with no evidence to back them up. In many cases, the claims have had the opposite effect than what the president presumably intended — feeding into doubts about his credibility, deepening his legal woes and generating unflattering accounts that dominate the news for weeks at a time.

And even when Trump has walked back a questionable comment, he has sometimes planted a new and similarly unsubstantiated claim. In denying Thursday that he had created “tapes” of his conversations with Comey, for example, Trump also suggested that he may have been surveilled.

“With all the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey,” Trump wrote in one tweet, before denying that he had created any.

Before the tapes, there was Trump’s unfounded claim that President Barack Obama “wiretapped” him in Trump Tower during the campaign, setting off a flurry of official inquiries from Congress. His oft-repeated assertion during the campaign that the wall along the southern border would be paid for by Mexico is one that lawmakers in Trump’s own party believe will never happen — yet they and others in the government continue to look for some way to help the president save face.

Trump has also repeatedly claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the last presidential election, with no proof. Yet in an effort to validate his comments, the Trump administration has created a commission aimed at investigating his claim of widespread voter fraud.

“What happens with the president is he shoots himself in the foot, and soon the gangrene spreads to the entire body politic,” said Norm Eisen, a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic and a former ethics czar in the Obama administration. “This is going to be the new normal: elements of the president’s own executive branch openly, or indirectly through leaks, responding to these false tweets.”

After Trump raised the prospect of Comey-related tapes, ­exasperated lawmakers in both parties pledged to find out one way or another. “I don’t have the foggiest idea,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said on ABC News the following Sunday.

But the most significant consequences were yet to come.

Comey told lawmakers in testimony this month that as he laid awake in his Northern Virginia bed a week after he was summarily fired, he decided to act — in large part because of Trump’s tweet.

“It didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape,” he said, explaining why he leaked memos of his conversations with Trump to the media. He also testified, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes!”

Comey’s memos prompted the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller III, a former FBI director, to investigate possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians who interfered in the election. The Washington Post has also reported that Mueller is investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation.

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