As backlash grows in the wake of reports that President Trump dismissed a wide range of nations as “shithole countries” during a discussion about immigration, the precise words he used have also become the subject of controversy — prompting the President to once again remark that he would like to record his conversations at the White House, an idea that comes with significant historical baggage.
On Friday morning, the President tweeted that (contrary to reports from those present, including Sen. Dick Durbin) he had not in fact said “anything derogatory” about Haitians in particular, and that such an idea was the fabrication of his political opponents. Trump went on to suggest that, as he insisted that a recording of the meeting in question would have backed him up, perhaps he should institute a policy of taping his appointments.
This is not the first time that Trump has suggested that he either has taped or would like to tape his private meetings at the White House.
But, as TIME reported last year when the President appeared to imply that there might be secret recordings of his meetings with former FBI director James Comey, there’s a good reason why such recordings (especially if they’re made in secret) are no longer the norm for U.S. Presidents.
Such wasn’t always the case. For the same reason that Trump seems inclined toward taping — anger over supposed misquotations — Franklin D. Roosevelt began recording some conversations in the 1940s using then-new tape technology. In the decades that followed, Presidents made an occasional habit of taping Oval Office conversations, sometimes without the knowledge of those on the other end of the discussion.
It was President Johnson’s use of that technique, Henry Kissinger would later say, that inspired President Richard Nixon to do the same — a decision that ultimately would lead to the end of the regular practice.
It was in early 1973, amid the aftermath of the Watergate break-in, that White House counsel John W. Dean began to suspect that his conversations with the President were being taped without his consent. It would turn out, as the public learned later that year, that the President had been taping conversations and calls for years, a fact that a former aide to Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman revealed during the course of the Watergate investigation.
After that fact came out — and even more so after the reveal that some part of the tapes had been erased — those recordings took on a key role in that investigation. Some close to the President insisted that the reason for the recording practice was the same one cited by Trump and FDR alike: the desire to ensure correct quotations in the press. And yet, despite that uncontroversial stated goal, President Nixon and his team worked hard to prove that he had the right to keep the tapes and their content secret, a battle he ultimately lost.
After Nixon’s resignation, the idea of a President taping White House conversations without the knowledge of those present seemed more sinister than ever, to the point that even an exonerating recording would inevitably be tainted by the method of its production. Later presidents thus made a point of swearing off the practice. President Trump, however, once again seems amenable to breaking with convention.
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