The Atlantic

Why U.S. Presidents Stopped Secretly Taping Their Conversations

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and others in between generated thousands of hours of audio from meetings and telephone calls. Is Donald Trump reviving that practice?
Source: William J. Smith / AP

What did the president say? And how did he say it?

These riffs on the questions that Republican Senator Howard Baker asked during the Watergate hearings help frame the current political moment in America. Whether they apply to President Trump’s alleged request for loyalty from then-FBI Director James Comey, or his Oval Office remarks to senior Russian officials about sensitive intelligence matters, or his reported attempt to steer the FBI away from investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, they are at the center of a national drama that threatens to unravel the Trump administration within its first five months in office.

What makes them not only fundamental to the investigations now enveloping the White House, but also tantalizing for Trump critics to pose is the possibility that someone might actually be able to answer them.

In a tweet earlier this month, Trump the idea that he’d recorded discussions with Comey—he “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”—and launched much speculation over the goods he might have on others with whom he’s consulted in the White House. It’s still unknown whether any such tapes exist. But if they do, it would mark the first confirmed instance of a practice that, presumably, had been long abandoned by American presidents—and, given its impact on Richard Nixon, for good reason.

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