WASHINGTON — "I don't know there was a game," White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday in response to a question about President Donald Trump's latest tweets, in which he denied taping former FBI chief James Comey.
Actually, it is a game — a 41-day back-and-forth marathon called "snooker," played not with cue sticks and red balls, but with cryptic social media posts prodding reporters' raised hands and shouted questions. Once again, Trump has managed to make journalists look easily dispatched on a fool's errand to investigate what turned out to be a nonissue.
But why? What, if anything, did Trump himself gain?
This chapter began on May 12 — two days after the president fired Comey — when Trump tweeted, "James Comey had better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Trump apparently was angry over a New York Times report that he had asked Comey for his loyalty in an early meeting.
News hounds' noses turned toward the new scent. Trump's tweet spawned hours of cable TV debate over what the president meant. Had Trump actually taped White House conversations or was this a feint? Was the tweet a threat that might constitute obstruction of justice?
Or was this typical Trumpian bluster engineered to push his critics off balance?
A Friday deadline was looming for Trump to turn over to the House Intelligence Committee any tapes, if they existed, when he took to Twitter Thursday afternoon. Minutes before Sanders was set to enter the briefing room, the president denied that he had taped Comey.
In two tweets, Trump told the world, "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."
When reporters followed up with questions — such as "Why the game? What was he doing?" — Sanders schooled the room. "Look," she said, "I think the president's statement via Twitter today is extremely clear. I don't have anything to add beyond the statement itself."
Then followed the predictable after-game arguments. GOP consultant Bryan Lanza defended the gambit. With that action, Lanza said, Trump "forced Comey's hand so that he revealed that he told Trump on three separate occasions that the president was not under investigation."
Comey never said as much before the Trump tape tweet, Lanza added.
Also, Comey admitted when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June that he arranged for a friend to leak information from memos he wrote after meeting with Trump.
On the left, disgust replaced admiration. "The first thing I thought was, duh, I never thought there was any tape," said Democratic strategist Maria Condona. "I always thought this was a distraction" designed to "keep us in suspense for weeks on end. It is such buffoonish behavior from someone who is supposed to be the leader of the free world."
For his part, Lanza pointed out that after months of probing and leaking, there is "not one shred of evidence of collusion between the campaign and any Russian officials."