Updated at 9:25 p.m. ET
President Trump suggested on Twitter Friday morning there might be recordings of his private conversations with former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired earlier this week, in an apparent attempt to caution Comey against "leaking to the press."
At the White House briefing in the afternoon, press secretary Sean Spicer refused multiple times to confirm or deny whether there is a secret recording device in the Oval Office.
"I've talked to the president, and the president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said, adding his oft-used statement that "the tweet speaks for itself."
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Asked whether the White House has a recording of Comey's conversations with the president, Spicer said, "I am not aware of that." He also denied the tweet was a "threat," saying instead that the president had "simply stated a fact."
Officials to interview candidates for FBI director
A source familiar with the process tells NPR, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will interview four candidates for the FBI director job Saturday. NPR has been told these interviews are not exhaustive and are just the start of the process.
The source says those being interviewed Saturday are:
- Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the party leadership, and a former judge and state attorney general.
- Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, who was Comey's deputy and who contradicted some Trump administration talking points before the Senate Intelligence committee this week.
- Alice Fisher, a lawyer specializing in white collar criminal investigations. During three years in the George W. Bush administration she served as assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division.
- Judge Michael Garcia, an associate judge of the court of appeals in New York, and former U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York from 2005-2008.
A week of contradictions from the White House
Friday's suggestion from the president caps a chaotic week for the White House, which has struggled to control the fallout after Comey's abrupt termination.
The presidential tweet appeared to be a response to news stories since the Tuesday firing, which have contradicted the White House's initial version of the events surrounding Comey's dismissal.
But in an NBC News interview on Thursday, it was Trump himself who said he was going to fire Comey regardless of the Justice Department's recommendation — even though White House staff and even Vice President Pence had pointed to the recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier in the week as the impetus for Trump's decision.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Friday afternoon that Rosenstein has agreed to brief the full Senate next week in a closed-door session about Comey's dismissal and the FBI's Russia investigation.
Multiple outlets have reported that Trump asked Comey for his loyalty at a private dinner in January but that the then-FBI director "declined to make that pledge," The New York Times reported.
Spicer denied that Trump had asked Comey to pledge his loyalty during that dinner.
In an interview set to air Saturday night with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro, Trump said he didn't ask Comey for his loyalty but he didn't think it "would be a bad question to ask" and wasn't an inappropriate inquiry to the head of the FBI.
On MSNBC Friday afternoon, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Andrea Mitchell that Comey had told him he was having dinner at the White House that evening in January and that he was "uneasy" over the invitation from Trump.
Congressional Democrats want "tapes" — and answers
The Senate Intelligence Committee had asked Comey to testify before it next Tuesday, but ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., told MSNBC Friday that the former FBI director declined, although "it is our hope in the not too distant future that we can find a time for him to come in and talk to our committee."
"I believe at the appropriate time and place [Comey] is going to tell his side of the story, and my hope is that that place at least will be in front of our committee," Warner said.
It's unclear whether the "tapes" Trump alluded to in his tweet would be audio or video recordings, or whether they exist at all. As The Washington Post pointed out, the president used a similar construction in his unsubstantiated wiretapping accusations against former President Barack Obama.
Soon after Trump's tweets, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., requested that White House Counsel Donald McGahn turn over any recordings of the president's conversations with Comey to the House Oversight Committee. Krishnamoorthi also asked for any recording of Trump's Wednesday meeting with Russian officials and "any conversations regarding the hiring or firing" of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
"These White House tapes could accelerate current investigations as previous tapes have aided past inquiries," Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.
House Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., also sent McGahn a letter requesting any tapes or communications between Trump and Comey. The two also said they believed Trump may have intimidated a potential witness with his tweet, which is a federal crime.
"The President's actions this morning—as well as his admission yesterday on national television that he fired Director Comey because he was investigating Trump campaign officials and their connections to the Russian government—raise the specter of possible intimidation and obstruction of justice," Cummings and Conyers wrote in the letter. "The President's actions also risk undermining the ongoing criminal and counter-intelligence investigations and the independence of federal law enforcement agencies."
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., also issued a blistering statement on Trump's tweets, calling on the president to "immediately provide any such recordings to Congress or admit, once again, to have made a deliberately misleading — and in this case threatening — statement."
Clapper pushes back against Trump's claims on Russia investigation
Trump also tweeted Friday morning that Clapper had testified there was no evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia — which the president deemed a "witch hunt."
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
On Monday, Clapper testified in a hearing on Russian election interference held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that he wasn't aware of any evidence of collusion and hadn't even been aware of the ongoing FBI investigation until Comey revealed it during a House hearing in March.
But Clapper later clarified to MSNBC that as DNI during the Obama administration he let FBI investigations operate independently and that such knowledge would be outside his scope.
"It is not surprising or ... abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation, or even more importantly, the content of that investigation," Clapper said. "So I don't know if there was collusion or not. I don't know if there was evidence of collusion or not. Nor should I have in this particular context."
Trump threatens to ax White House press briefings
In his Friday morning tweetstorm, the president also suggested that his administration could do away with briefings for the press and instead give out written statements.
...Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future "press briefings" and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Trump added that "as a very active president with lots of things happening," it's impossible for him to stay in such close communication with his staff that the briefings would be completely accurate.
Schiff took issue with that as well. "Finally, and with respect to the President's suggestion that as a very busy person, he doesn't have time to ensure that his spokespeople are accurately portraying his actions — it is difficult to know how to respond — except to say, being truthful with the American people is a core responsibility of the job," Schiff said. "If he did not want to willingly undertake even the minimal requirements of the Presidency, it would have been far better for him to have considered that before he chose to run for the highest office in the land."
Spicer also didn't knock down the idea that press briefings in the future may be curtailed, saying that the president was dismayed over the press's attempts to "parse every little word and make it more of a game of 'gotcha.' "
Trump reiterated in his interview with Fox News' Pirro that he believes ending the briefings would be a good idea.
"Unless I have them every two weeks and do it myself, we won't have them. I think it's a good idea," the president said.
White House Correspondents' Association President Jeff Mason, a Reuters journalist, reiterated in a statement that canceling briefings would be an affront to the "constitutionally-protected principles" of a free press.
"White House briefings and press conferences provide substantive and symbolic opportunities for journalists to pose questions to officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. That exercise, conducted in full view of our republic's citizens, is clearly in line with the spirit of the First Amendment," Mason said. "Doing away with briefings would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned."
NPR's Geoff Bennett and Susan Davis contributed to this report.