For President Donald Trump, the fact that his former attorney secretly recorded him may have been more troubling than the fact that the conversation was about covering up an alleged affair.
After a recording became public of Trump and former personal attorney Michael Cohen discussing a payment toward Playboy model Karen McDougal, Trump’s two public comments on the issue both focused on his anger that he was secretly taped.
“Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client – totally unheard of & perhaps illegal,” Trump wrote. “The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!”
Later, he added: “What kind of lawyer would tape a client? So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before?”
Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN that the president felt “betrayed” by the recording.
“I saw the president when the president first found out he had been taped and the president was completely shocked,” he said. “He wasn’t angry — you know President Trump can get angry — he was disappointed, almost like a father who has been betrayed by his son.”
The incident was just the latest in a string of times that Trump has obsessed over secret recordings of him and other people.
During the 2016 election, Trump faced controversy over tapes of old phone calls to reporters in which he was accused of posing as his own publicist. He denied these allegations in an interview, telling NBC, “It was not me on the phone. And it doesn’t sound like me on the phone.”
In the waning weeks of the campaign, he was highly criticized when a hot mic recording of a conversation with “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush became public. On tape, Trump recounted pursuing an affair with a married woman and discussed how he inappropriately touched women. The ensuing outrage on both sides of the political aisle forced him to issue a rare public apology.
After Trump became president, transcripts of his phone calls with foreign leaders were leaked, including conversations in which he told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the call was “unpleasant” and insisted to then-President Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico would pay for a border wall. This week, the White House suspended the practice of publishing call summaries, or “readouts,” of Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders.
Trump has also viewed tapes as a way to defend himself.
When then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski faced allegations of accosting reporter Michelle Fields, Trump argued that surveillance footage of the event proved it didn’t happen and argued that Fields changed her story because of the video, a claim that PolitiFact rated “Pants on Fire.”
“Look at tapes-nothing there!” Trump tweeted.
Trump has even argued that non-existent tapes might prove his version of events.
After he fired former FBI Director James Comey, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey to pledge his loyalty during a private dinner — an account that Comey confirmed but Trump denied. One day after that story was published, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Trump later admitted that there were no tapes of Comey and claimed he had simply been speculating that someone else might have recorded their conversation at the White House.
“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” he tweeted.
And he’s argued that the fact that no tapes document his campaign working with Russia proves it did not happen.
“The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling. With 4 months looking at Russia under a magnifying glass, they have zero ‘tapes’ of T people colluding. There is no collusion & no obstruction. I should be given apology!” he tweeted.
Trump himself may have used tapes to his advantage in the past. Executives who previously worked with Trump at his business told the Washington Post that they were warned that he might be recording them, especially on the phone.
“Talking on the phone with Donald was a public experience,” said John O’Donnell, president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in the ’80s.
Controversial tapes are nothing new to politics. President Richard Nixon was forced out of office in large part due to Oval Office recordings in which he discussed the Watergate break-in. President John F. Kennedy taped Oval Office conversations with hidden microphones and President Lyndon B. Johnson secretly recorded over 800 hours of his own conversations.
And Trump has warned that high-profile figures like himself might be taped.
In a press conference after claims about Russian meddling in the election first became public, Trump responded to a reporter’s question about blackmail by saying that he’s long warned his staffers about this.
“‘Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras,'” he said. “‘Cameras are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful, or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television.'”