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Trump Tweet Raises Questions About Secret White House Recordings


Trump has had a strong response to the account given by Comey's associates. He tweeted this - James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he started leaking to the press. Barbara Perry is the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. We called her up earlier today for some historical perspective on presidents recording their conversations.

BARBARA PERRY: It goes all the way back to FDR. Almost as soon as we had the technology to allow recorded conversations, FDR signed on in 1940.

CORNISH: So what drove them to do so? Is this a security thing? Is it just on people in-house?

PERRY: It's a combination of factors. In the case of FDR, he thought that he had been misquoted by The New York Times in a leaked conversation with someone on Capitol Hill, so he began to record his press conferences which had up to that point, of course, not really had the technology to do that.

CORNISH: If there were tapes today, could they be subject to subpoena by Congress or even information requests by reporters, kind of like what circumstances under which could they come out?

PERRY: Well, they absolutely could in terms of being subpoenaed as evidence in criminal trials, and that's what we saw so many years ago in 1974 in the Watergate tapes case. Nixon, once word came out that he had been taping conversations, he wanted to keep those private. And he said he could under executive privilege, but that case went to the Supreme Court.

The court said only diplomatic and military secrets can be held under executive privilege. These tapes were needed for criminal trials of members of the Nixon administration in the Watergate affair.

CORNISH: After the Nixon administration, there was no law against doing recording in the White House - right? - but it was believed to have fallen out of practice, having secret recordings. Do we know what's happened since in the modern era in terms of transcribing or taking notes or videos? What's going on?

PERRY: Well, it's true that there doesn't appear to be any kind of law that would prevent a president from doing this, but prudentially it seemed not the thing to do after Nixon had, in effect, created his own noose, if you will, by having made these tapes. So we don't know exactly what the status is of presidents who may have recorded or transcribed.

We know, for example, that Bush 43 used the video technology to speak to his commanders in the field during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we don't know the status of those. And there has been reporting, even in the Obama administration in 2013, for example, that he may have been recording conversations that he had with visitors to the Oval Office.

CORNISH: When we reached out to Ben Rhodes from the Obama administration, he claims that any recording they did was not surreptitious. I mean, is there anything, I guess, to take from that?

PERRY: I think that there is an element that goes all the way back, of course, to the Nixon tapes that there was never knowledge beyond the president and a few of his closest aides and Secret Service agents that recording was being done. So it was quite secret from FDR starting it through Nixon, and so it may be the case for Obama that eventually it was known, and so it was not considered to be secret.

And I think that for the American people there is a sense that they don't like the fact that the president is engaging in secret recordings, particularly of his own advisers or other American visitors to the White House.

CORNISH: What will you be looking for next in this story?

PERRY: Well, I think we're going to be looking for whether indeed we get any confirmation from Trump or otherwise that there have been recordings made. And I think if that's the case, will we have a Nixonian situation that we actually end up with a subpoena from Capitol Hill or from the judicial branch?

CORNISH: Barbara Perry is director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PERRY: My pleasure to be with you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "SCENIC WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.