Ron Berger —
We are currently in the midst of a political scandal that has the potential to rival the infamous Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. A political consensus has emerged, based on available information from U.S. intelligence agencies, that Russia hacked email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign with the intent of damaging Clinton’s candidacy. Suspicions about something nefarious afoot have been fueled by Donald Trump’s positive comments about Vladimir Putin. And information about contacts between members of the Trump campaign and presidential administration and Russian officials and businessmen are under investigation. That the Trump administration has recently been critical of Russia’s support for the murderous Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad does not necessarily undermine these suspicions. In fact, Trump’s recent criticism of Russia may, in part, be intended to deflect this evolving scandal.
The noted journalist Carl Bernstein, whose work with Bob Woodward during the 1970s helped expose the Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon administration, thinks we are in the early stages of a cover-up. He believes that further exposure of Trump’s international business ties and conflicts of interest is the key to unraveling the scandal. Release of Trump’s income tax filings alone would shed much light on this issue. “Follow the money,” Bernstein advises.
Every time a presidential scandal emerges, comparisons are routinely made to Watergate, and journalists ask whether the emerging scandal is as serious, more serious, or less serious than Watergate. During the George W. Bush administration, for example, former Nixon presidential council John Dean published a book titled Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Bernstein has made similar claims about Donald Trump, saying Trump’s lies, incompetency, and threat to our nation are worse than those posed by Nixon.
One of the reasons Watergate has become the paradigmatic presidential scandal is that Nixon was forced to resign (before an impeachment process could proceed). Although some partisan Republicans tried to compare the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s to Watergate, few objective observers thought that lying about a sexual relationship under oath rose to the level of Watergate.
People who lived through the time of Watergate may remember the details of this scandal, but I would venture a guess that there are many (regardless of age) who do not. Insofar as Watergate has become the benchmark scandal by which all subsequent presidential scandals are compared, I thought it would be useful to remind readers of what it entailed.
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The Watergate scandal began with what is arguably the most famous burglary in the history of the United States. Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, five men dressed in business suits entered the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. They were there to check on malfunctioning electronic surveillance equipment they had planted on an earlier trip in order to spy on the Democratic Party. This time they were discovered by the night watchman, who called the police. The burglars, it turned out, were under the employ of President Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Committee for the Reelection of the President, dubbed CREEP. Nixon assured the American public that the matter was under investigation by the proper authorities and that he knew nothing about what had transpired. But Nixon did not anticipate that two years later he would be forced to make public transcripts of tape-recorded White House conversations and admit that “portions of the tapes … are at variance with certain of my previous statements.”
Even prior to the discovery of the tapes, journalists investigating the burglary—especially Woodward and Bernstein, who were working for The Washington Post—had made headway unraveling the case. The press reported that a $25,000 check from Nixon’s campaign fund had been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars and that the White House had tried to involve the FBI and CIA in the concealment of evidence that linked CREEP officials to the crime. Some of the burglars had previously worked for the CIA, and G. Gordon Liddy, who masterminded the burglary and planned other illegal acts, had been an FBI agent. The press also revealed that Nixon aides had ordered a burglary of the office of Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to discredit Ellsberg. In 1971 Ellsberg had leaked classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press, revealing how government officials—both Republicans and Democrats—had deceived the U.S. Congress and the American public about its rationale and plans to escalate the controversial Vietnam War.
The damning tapes were not discovered until the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities began investigating the case in May 1973 and after John Dean testified about the role that he and others (including Nixon) played in a cover-up. Both the Senate committee and the special prosecutor who was appointed by the Department of Justice asked Nixon to turn over the tapes. The president refused and the dispute moved through the courts. Eventually, in July 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon’s hand. The excerpt from the tapes that proved most damaging at the time was of a conversation that took place just six days after the Watergate burglary between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. In this conversation Nixon said:
Now, on the investigation, … the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control … because they’ve been able to trace the money … through the bank sources. … And … it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. [Former attorney general and current CREEP chairman John] Mitchell came up with yesterday, and … John Dean analyzed very carefully … and … concurs now with Mitchell’s recommendation that the only way to solve this … is for us to have [deputy CIA director Vernon] Walters call [acting FBI director L. Patrick] Gray and just say “Stay to hell out of this, … we don’t want you to go any further on it.”
After transcripts of the tapes were released, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that Nixon be impeached for obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and illegal withholding of evidence from Congress. Nixon saw the handwriting on the wall—even Republican leaders encouraged him to step down—and he reluctantly resigned from office on August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford became president, and he pardoned Nixon a month later for all federal crimes that Nixon might have committed and for which Nixon might have otherwise been prosecuted.
It is interesting to note that Ford had become vice president because his predecessor in that office, Spiro Agnew, also had been forced to resign. In 1973 federal officials began investigating charges that Agnew, as Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland, had accepted bribes from contractors (such as highway construction companies) receiving government work. Apparently Agnew had continued to accept payments even while serving as vice president. Agnew pleaded “no contest” to charges of income tax evasion. He was fined $10,000 and sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation.
Although Agnew’s crimes had nothing to do with Watergate, investigation of the Watergate scandal eventually revealed not just a single burglary, but a larger cluster of crimes and abuses of governmental power, including other burglaries, illegal wiretapping, obstruction of justice, bribery to facilitate the cover-up, tax audits of political foes, dissemination of false and defamatory stories about Democratic rivals, solicitation of campaign contributions in exchange for favors, and appropriation of campaign funds for private use. In the end, a number of White House and campaign aides were convicted and given prison sentences, with Liddy serving the longest term (52 months). After his release from prison, Liddy went on to become a syndicated radio talk-show celebrity who proselytized right-wing politics to his listening audience.
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To be sure, abuses of presidential power both preceded and followed the Watergate affair, but what Watergate represents at its core is a profound disregard for the democratic process. Nixon had built his political career attacking opponents for being soft on communism, national security, and crime, and he made many enemies along the way. He felt that he had been the victim of election shenanigans in Chicago, where there is evidence that Mayor Richard Daley helped rig the vote that delivered the state of Illinois to John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. And during the 1968 election campaign that brought Nixon to power, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the FBI to wiretap Nixon’s plane. Nixon felt entirely justified in using similar tactics against his political foes, and he encouraged and condoned a culture among his minions of doing whatever it took to advance their collective political power, even to the point of committing crimes. But the truth of the matter is that Nixon actually believed that he, as president, was above the law. As he told journalist David Frost in a 1977 interview, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Donald Trump has made similar comments that indicate he thinks that he, as president, is entitled to this prerogative if he chooses to exercise it.
If it were not for the Watergate tapes, Nixon would have likely survived the scandal, because this was the “smoking gun” that eventually brought him down. In that earlier era as well, empirical proof that a president had lied was very damaging to the legitimacy of his administration. But in an era of “fake news” and habitual lying by Donald Trump, getting caught in a lie appears to have lost the power to inflict political damage. Remember that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney also lied to the American public about Saddam Hussein’s role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) that they claimed posed an imminent threat to our nation, which they used to justify the disastrous military invasion of Iraq. They lied, too, about their sanctioning of torture in the so-called “war on terror.” While Bush and Cheney left office with very low public approval ratings, they were never held legally accountable for the devastating consequences of their deception.
Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to repeat it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its power to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the great enemy of the State.” I remain optimistic, however, that President Trump’s ability to repress dissent will be much weaker than that of the Nazi regime. The resistance movement in its many manifestations—most notably the proliferation of public protests, the court rulings overturning Trump’s immigration policies, the failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the resiliency of the press, and some Republicans’ willingness to investigate the Russia scandal—gives me hope that Trump will not succeed. The truth of the corruption that helped bring him to power and that marks his presidency may yet bring him down.