Watergate Resembles Trump's Russia Problem In These Eight Uncomfortable Ways
Constitutional crises don't come along regularly. Arguably, the last time the United States government found itself in such a pickle was some 45 years ago when Republican operatives attempted breaking into the Democrats National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex. They were caught red-handed with bugging equipment and were later linked to the Nixon re-election campaign. That set off a chain of events that ended with President Nixon resigning instead of facing impeachment charges. Now, it seems we're back to a similar time in history: There are at least eight ways the Trump-Russia investigation resembles Watergate.
Before getting to the similarities, you should note that there is at least one big difference between then and now: Nixon had Democrats in Congress to deal with, and that's what ultimately scared him into resigning. Trump of course faces Dems too, but they are in the minority. There's only so much leverage they have when Republicans hold a majority in both houses and on all the committees that would look into this sort of charge.
The other big difference is the lack of a special prosecutor. Nixon's own attorney general appointed the Watergate special prosecutor the year after the election. Thus far it doesn't seem that the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein feels that one is necessary. Maybe this list will help him change his mind.
1) Attempts To Influence An Election
One of the biggest similarities in the two cases is when they begin. If there is any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — and it's important to note that there may well not be, since nothing has been proven — it would have begun during the campaign. Watergate began with the break-in, but it was a part of a bigger attempt to influence the outcome of Nixon's reelection. The CIA was even involved.
This time around the CIA is also involved, but only as it should be. The agency called out Russian security services that are implicated in allegedly tipping the election in Trump's favor.
2) Spying On The Other Party
The Watergate break-in might match what you imagine a scene from a movie about political misbehavior to look like. But it's important to remember that the Democrats were essentially spied on.
The various leaks from inside the Clinton campaign provided exactly what those Republican operatives were looking for during Watergate, campaign secrets. The only difference here is that Russia did the hacking and Wikileaks posted the information for all the world to see.
3) Unpopular Presidents
Believe it or not, Nixon started out in a better position after his reelection than Trump did after his first. Nixon began with a 68 percent approval rating following the vote, whereas Trump set a new low. He was inaugurated with just a 45 percent approval rating.
But Nixon didn't last long at the top. By the time that Watergate hit the news, his approval ratings were down to 48 percent and they continued to drop until his resignation. Trump is already down to just a 42 percent approval rating, according to the latest Politico/Morningstar Consult poll.
4) Justice Department Firings
This is probably the biggest comparison that has been made between the two investigations in the media to date. When Nixon felt that the special prosecutor Archibald Cox in charge of the Watergate investigation was getting too close for comfort, he asked his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire him. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. So did his deputy attorney general. Nixon eventually succeeded in firing Cox, but the media and the public reacted strongly.
The first time Trump's actions were compared to Nixon's was when he fired the acting Attorney General Sally Yates for failing to defend his travel ban. That doesn't even compare, though, to his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey last week. That's because Comey was in charge of the Russia investigation, much like Cox was in charge of the Watergate investigation under Nixon. What's worse is that Trump went on to acknowledge the Russia investigation as one of the reasons for firing Comey.
5) Possible Recordings
One of the things that got Nixon in trouble during Watergate were the recordings he made in the oval office of every conversation had there — even the ones he shouldn't have been having. The tapes were ultimately used to connect him to the scandal. There was a recording in which he attempted to stop the FBI's investigation into the Watergate matter, just days after the break-in. The tapes were subpoenaed as part of the investigation, and when the Supreme Court allowed this, Nixon knew it was over.
Whether there are tapes this time is a big unknown, but the possibility comes from Trump himself. He threatened Comey in a Twitter outburst about the possibility of his conversations with the then FBI director being recorded. "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press," Trump wrote, after news reports came out that Trump asked Comey to stop the FBI investigation into Russia, something the White House denies.
6) The Press Secretaries
Another similarity of the two instances is the difficult role of the press secretary during the whole ordeal. It should be obvious to everyone how difficult it must be to be Sean Spicer. He's had to try and defend Trump's actions, only to have Trump give a complete different version within days.
Well, it turns out that Nixon's press secretary also had a similarly difficult time. Politico did a story on the man, Ron Ziegler. Evidently he was left to make sense of the Nixon administration's claims in quite a similar way. Take for example his famous quote, "The president is aware of what is going on in Southeast Asia. That is not to say anything is going on in Southeast Asia."
Sounds like it could come from the podium today, doesn't it?
One of the most important actors in the Watergate scandal was the leaker known at the time as "Deep Throat." He was the main source that famed Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to blow open the story (his true identity was Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI).
Now, there have been plenty of leaks this go-around with the Russia investigation, too. But the most important one to point out is from Trump himself. He shared allied intelligence about ISIS with Russia, when it was marked with one of the highest levels of classification. First the administration denied this, but then Trump defended his actions, explaining it was in his right to do so.
8) Promises By The Attorneys General
Remember the big caveat at the beginning of the article about the key differences between Watergate and now? Well this has a lot to do with it. Evidently back when Nixon's attorney general, Eliot Richardson, was going through confirmation hearings, he promised to appoint a special prosecutor to the Watergate investigation. This was something that senators wanted from in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's confirmation hearing too, but they didn't get the promise they wanted.
Now the question is whether Rosenstein will actually go on to appoint such a special prosecutor. Unless the Republicans decide to change their posturing, the deputy attorney general and the special prosecutor he appoints will be the only way the investigation moves forward in an independent manner.