President Donald Trump lashed out in a series of tweets Friday morning amid a firestorm over the abrupt firing of James Comey, including a warning to the former FBI director that he had better hope there are no "tapes" of their conversations.
That statement raised the question of whether Trump recorded a discussion with Comey, but White House press secretary Sean Spicer would not say Friday afternoon whether Trump did so.
Also in Trump's early morning tweets, which Spicer did little to elaborate on at the daily White House press briefing, Trump defended the shifting narrative and timeline his administration has offered for his decision to dismiss the FBI director. Trump's tweets came the morning after he asserted Comey had told him three times that he wasn't under FBI investigation.
"I said, 'If it's possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?' He said you are not under investigation," Trump said in an interview Thursday with NBC News. He said the discussions happened in two phone calls and at a dinner in which Comey was asking to keep his job.
Comey has not confirmed Trump's account. Late Thursday, The New York Times cited two unnamed Comey associates who recounted his version of a January dinner with the president in which Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty. Comey declined, instead offering "honest." When Trump then pressed for "honest loyalty," Comey told him, "You will have that," the associates said.
Comey was invited to testify before the Senate Intel Committee next week, but a committee ranking member Mark Warner said Friday that the former FBI director will not be appearing before the committee.
Warner said he is hoping to hear from Comey in the "not-too-distant future."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders disputed that report and said the president would "never even suggest the expectation of personal loyalty."
Spicer denied that Trump sought a pledge of loyalty. "I think the president wants loyalty to this country and the rule of law," he said.
Trump also challenged the way Comey's termination was reported, questioning in other tweets Friday whether his administration should cancel all future press briefings and, instead, replace them with written responses to questions, "for the sake of accuracy."
The president's advisers said this week that Trump fired Comey on Tuesday in response to a recommendation by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Later, however, they said that Trump had planned to fire Comey regardless, as Trump asserted in the interview with Holt.
The president tweeted, "As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!"
He added, "Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future 'press briefings' and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???"
Huckabee Sanders insisted the information she and her colleagues offered was consistent. "It was a quick-moving process," she said, in comments echoed by Spicer.
White House press briefings have been held for over 100 years, and the president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Jeff Mason, stated Friday that doing away with them "would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questions."
In a FOX interview with Judge Jeanine Pirro, Trump implies cancellation of the press briefings. "We just don't have them. Unless I have them every two weeks and do it myself. We don't have them," he told Pirro.
The president's morning tweeting again raised the specter of Richard Nixon, whose secretly taped conversations and telephone calls in the White House ultimately led to his downfall in the Watergate scandal. Trump's firing of Comey already has left him with the dubious distinction of being the first president since Nixon to fire a law enforcement official overseeing an investigation tied to the White House.
The ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., called the statements Trump made "extraordinary" and said that any tapes of conversations with Comey would have been made by Trump.
"For a President who baselessly accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping him, that Mr. Trump would suggest that he, himself, may have engaged in such conduct is staggering," Schiff said in a statement, adding that Trump should turn the tapes over to Congress or admit he made a deliberately misleading statement.
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Friday that Trump was "dangerous" and that "his credibility has been destroyed."
Durbin, while on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, suggested that the president's move to fire Comey amid an investigation of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election and possible ties to Trump's own campaign was "dangerous because he may be obstructing justice." And he said he feared the world would no longer take Trump at his word.
Even before Trump's provocative tweet, the White House was scrambling to clarify why Comey was fired. Trump told NBC he had planned to fire Comey all along, regardless of whether top Justice Department officials recommended the stunning step.
The White House initially cited a Justice Department memo criticizing Comey's handling of last year's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails as the impetus for Trump's decision. But Trump on Thursday acknowledged for the first time that the Russia investigation — which he dismissed as a "made-up story" — was also on his mind as he ousted the man overseeing the probe.
The shifting accounts of the decision to fire Comey, whom Trump derided as a "showboat" and "grandstander," added to a mounting sense of uncertainty and chaos in the West Wing, as aides scrambled to get their stories straight and appease an angry president. Not even Vice President Mike Pence was spared the embarrassment of having told a version of events that was later discredited by Trump.
The White House's explanations continued to crumble throughout the day Thursday. On Capitol Hill, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe strongly disputed the White House's assertion that Comey had been fired in part because he had lost the confidence of the FBI's rank-and-file.
"That is not accurate," McCabe said. "Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day."
Unfazed, Sanders insisted she had heard from "countless" members of the FBI who welcomed the president's decision.
McCabe also pointed out the remarkable nature of Trump's version of his conversations with Comey. McCabe told a Senate panel it was not "standard practice" to tell an individual whether they are or are not under investigation.
Previous presidents have made a public show of staying out of legal matters, so as not to appear to be injecting politics. Trump's comments demonstrated his striking deviation from that practice.
Comey was invited to the White House to have dinner and felt "uneasy about that" because he didn't want to give the appearance the FBI investigation could be compromised, said James Clapper, a retired general and Barack Obama's director of national intelligence, on MSNBC Friday.
Clapper said he was with Comey on the day of the dinner and added that "you're in a difficult position to refuse to go."
The ousted director himself is said to be confident that his own version of events will come out, possibly in an appearance before Congress, according to an associate who has been in touch with him since his firing Tuesday.
"A source close to Comey told me this morning: 'He hopes there are tapes. That would be perfect,'" NBC News' Ken Dilanian tweeted.
Trump and Comey's relationship was strained early on, in part because of the president's explosive and unsubstantiated claims that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Comey found the allegations confounding, according to his associate, and wondered what to make of what he described as strange thoughts coming from his new boss.
The White House said Trump is weighing options for replacing Comey, a decision that could have broad implications for the future of the Russia investigation. Some senior officials have discussed nominating Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who ran the House committee that investigated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's actions in connection with the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Trump's advisers have repeatedly tried to downplay the Russia-election matter, with Sanders saying Wednesday the FBI was "doing a whole lot more than the Russia investigation."
But McCabe characterized the investigation as "highly significant" and assured senators that Comey's firing would not hinder it. He promised he would tolerate no interference from the White House and would not provide the administration with updates on its progress.
"You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing," he declared. He said there has been no interference so far.
Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein is expected to brief the full Senate next week, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's spokesperson.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama, Darlene Superville, Deb Riechmann, Eric Tucker and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.