WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday he "did not make" and doesn't have any recordings of his private conversations with ousted FBI Director James Comey, speaking up on Twitter after a month-long guessing game that began with him delivering an ominous warning and ended with his administration ensnared in more scandal.
"With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information," Trump said he has "no idea" whether there are "tapes" or recordings of the two men's conversations. But he declared he "did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."
The saga began in May, just days after Trump fired Comey, who was then leading an investigation into contacts before and after the election between the president's campaign and Russian officials. Trump disputed Comet's version of a January dinner during which Comey said Trump had asked for a pledge of loyalty.
The president responded with an unmistakable threat, tweeting that Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
But what appears to have started as an angry, or perhaps mischievous missive triggered a series of consequences each weightier than the last. Ultimately the cryptic comment resulted in the appointment of a special counsel who is now reportedly investigating Trump's own actions in a probe that could dog his presidency for the foreseeable future.
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 an Oval Office conversation from February. In that meeting, according to the memo, Trump asked Comey to consider dropping an investigation into the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
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 Trump political campaign.
The absence of recordings almost certainly elevates in significance to investigators the notes made by Comey at the time. Those notes, shared with close associates and testified about to Congress, would likely be weighed by investigators against Trump's own account of the conversations in any investigation that looks into whether the president tried to obstruct justice. Investigators will also weigh the credibility of Comey against a president who has shown a wobbly commitment to accuracy.
Trump's tweets on Thursday raised questions about why the president would have staked his reputation and political capital on promoting something that wasn't real. And more questions may soon emerge as to why, in his tweets denying he recorded Comey, did he raise the possibility anew that he might be under some sort of surveillance in the White House.
Several outside advisers who speak to Trump regularly have said the president has not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. White House aides have been known to grimace when the subject comes up, and more than a half-dozen staffers said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.
"I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant, has said. "He's not a professional politician. He doesn't come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: 'I'll outbluff you.'"
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.
Comey says any recordings that might exist would support his version that Trump asked him to pledge loyalty and urged him to drop the investigation into Trump's former national security adviser.
"Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey declared at a congressional hearing.
But the president had steadfastly refused to clarify whether any tapes existed. Two weeks ago, he teased reporters in the White House Rose Garden by saying that he'd explain "maybe sometime in the very near future." He cryptically added: "You are going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer."
This is not the first time that Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.
"I think the president has played the media like a fiddle for two and a half years," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday.
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 eligible to become president, fueled his own political rise. He never produced any evidence.
The pattern has continued since his election.
Sometimes he's delivered on the tease: He spent weeks building suspense about whether the United States would remain in the Paris climate agreement and eventually announced in a Rose Garden ceremony that the U.S. would pull out.
But other times he has not. 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."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Ken Thomas and Deb Riechmann contributed reporting.