Media Buzz

The sound of silence: Lack of Comey tapes fails to derail the media coverage

Howard Kurtz

I confess: I thought the story of the non-existent White House tapes would quickly blow over.

After all, how exciting is it to learn what nearly everyone already expected, that President Trump did not secretly record his conversations with Jim Comey?

Apparently the story was HUGE.

I saw a dizzying number of segments about the tape uproar, lots of stories, and hot takes online. Much of the press cast it as a character test. There were cries of lies, witness intimidation and worse.

I don’t think it’s the wisest thing Trump ever did. And he let it go on too long—41 days, to be precise. But while it’s an interesting story, it feels like a future footnote in the history of the tangled Russia investigation.

When Trump tweeted last month that the FBI director he fired had better hope there were no tapes of their conversations, it seemed like a pretty obvious bluff. And a bit of a taunt. And maybe even, in baseball terms, a brushback pitch.

But Trump undoubtedly underestimated what a big story the merest prospect of tapes would be, given the echoes of Watergate and the way Richard Nixon’s presidency ended.

Still, I think he was enjoying all the frenzied media speculation, which he could have ended at any time.

Trump told “Fox & Friends” that his maneuver might have had an impact on Comey’s testimony: “When he found out that there may be tapes out there…I think his story may have changed.”

I don’t see any evidence of that. Comey backed up Trump on some points and not on others. But Sean Spicer made a related point in an interview with me for yesterday’s “Media Buzz.”

In the runup to Comey’s Senate testimony, Spicer said, “other networks were insisting that it was going to be—that Comey was going to come to the stand and undermine the president’s comments and yet exactly the opposite happened. Director Comey came and admitted that the president was right that on three separate occasions he admitted to him he wasn’t under investigation.”

It’s true that CNN and ABC erroneously reported that Comey would contradict Trump on that point. But that doesn’t mean Comey changed his mind after the famous tweet. The stories, as I told Spicer, may just have been wrong.

It’s fine to criticize the president over the tape maneuver. He had nothing, and it took him a long time to say that he had nothing—until the deadline to respond to a Hill letter about whether such recordings existed.

But like much else about this investigation, the coverage often seems to be about process and positioning and moving further away from the so-called collusion that was supposed to be at its heart.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.