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Why This Is Not Trump’s Watergate

Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Richard Nixon leaving the White House following his resignation, August 9, 1974

The thirty-one-page federal indictment of the former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates on charges of money-laundering, conspiracy, bank fraud, and false statements tells us that we have reached the end of the beginning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump team’s ties to Russia. The unsealing of the charges early Monday morning—fifty-one weeks after Donald Trump was elected president and just a few hours after he again tweeted his disgust with the investigation—means we are leaving the ungainly phase where virtually all of the news we get about the investigation comes to us from unnamed sources, all of whom are trying to spin the story this way and that. We are entering instead the phase where we all will be able to read, see, and hear at least some specific, detailed allegations of criminal misconduct. Defense lawyers will emerge as tribunes for their client. And this fascinating story, whose end is unknowable, will lurch on.

And the lurching began almost immediately. Monday’s most significant news was not the indictment of Manafort and Gates, but the unsealing of details of a plea deal with another former Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, whose testimony directly links the campaign with Russian dirty tricks aimed at Hillary Clinton. Worse, from the Trump White House’s perspective anyway, is the realization that Papadopoulos has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigation for months now, which means federal investigators have known far more about the strength of the Russian collusion claim that has been publicly acknowledged. What did Papadopolous know, when did he know it, and who did he tell? A photograph of him with a seat at the table in a foreign policy meeting on March 31, 2016, along with Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, belies the White House’s claim later on Monday that he was an outlier, a “volunteer” on the campaign. In the span of a few hours, America caught a strong whiff both of conspiracy and collusion.

It’s easy to compare it all to Watergate. An unhinged Republican president. The nefarious men with whom he surrounded himself. The dirty tricks. The undermining of democratic norms. The intrepid group of reporters trying to get to the bottom of it all. A criminal case proceeding even as new scoops emerge and legislators continue to investigate. But our perceptions of the Watergate affair, some forty-five years later, are shaped not by how it began but by how it ended. It is a tidy story and we perceive it today as having an inexorable result: of course, a crooked president had to resign in disgrace. But that’s surely not what our parents and grandparents thought in June 1972, when the “third-rate burglary” occurred, or in January 1973, when the trial of the burglars began. To our predecessors, that time was as foggy and inconclusive as today’s events are.

Which is why comparisons to Watergate are so facile. Never mind the obvious factual differences in the stories—the allegations of Russian collusion are far more grave—American law, politics, and journalism are far too different now to think that matters will unfold the way they did in the 1970s. As complex a story as Watergate was, it reads like a children’s book compared to what Mueller and his team are dealing with. As vicious and as partisan as the events were back then, they seem quaint in comparison to the poisonous atmosphere in which the current scandal is unfolding. We can still talk about the possibility of impeachment, but it will be an even more partisan process than it was in 1974.  

Even the timing of how this will all unfold will be different—perhaps substantively significantly so—from what we saw in the early 1970s. It took 208 days (roughly six months) from the date of the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters to the start of the trial of the men who broke in at the behest of the White House. That seemed like a long time, perhaps, but it is nothing compared to what we may be looking at now. It’s hard for me to believe, given the nature of federal criminal prosecutions these days, that we will see a trial within six months for Manafort or Gates. Far more likely—if we do see a trial and not a plea deal—is that it will take place a year or more from now. Whether that timetable helps or hurts the president is unknowable.

David Levine
Richard Nixon and various Watergate conspirators
David Levine

What is knowable, at least until next November’s mid-term elections, is that Mueller will face a degree of congressional opposition, or at least obfuscation, that his predecessors did not. The House of Representatives in the wake of the 1972 election had fifty more Democrats than Republicans. Following that election, the Senate was controlled by Democrats with a majority of fifty-six to forty-four. Even then, with a Republican in the White House, it took many months for Congress to rouse itself from torpor and begin to investigate the scandal. Today, Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and those numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Thanks both to partisan gerrymandering and incumbents’ fear of being challenged in a primary by a Trump supporter, there are fewer moderates in both chambers than there were in 1972, fewer legislators in states or districts who feel the pull of bipartisanship. The center did not hold in 2016. And we can already see the effect of partisanship on Mueller’s probe.

It is no surprise that Trump, like Nixon, would go after those who are investigating his associates. The anger, paranoia, and authoritarianism that fuel this reflex were in Nixon’s nature, too; the difference is that Nixon typically raged in private, (albeit on tape), while Trump rages in public, on Twitter. It is not just the president’s personal animosity toward Mueller; the White House is waging a concerted campaign to undermine the former FBI director. What is also profoundly different today, and what makes the coming prosecutions so difficult to handicap, is the growing hostility to Mueller’s investigation among important lawmakers. Congress did not interfere with the probe into Watergate; the congressional oversight hearings of that era are arguably the body’s finest. Today, however, many congressional Republicans are working actively to subvert Mueller’s investigation, either by trying to damage his credibility, or by complicating his inquiries, or by deflecting attention away from the president to the candidate he beat in the general election, who now holds no office. As for that proposed congressional defense of the special counsel if Trump removes him? Show me the enacted legislation.

Another difference with the 1972–1974 period is that congressional hacks like Representatives Devin Nunes (Republican of California) and Trey Gowdy (Republican of South Carolina), empowered with committee chairmanships, only pretend to be honest brokers on behalf of a legislative branch willing to act as a check and balance on a foundering executive branch. Instead, these lawmakers, and many members of the Senate, including those like Senator Charles Grassley who have presented themselves for years as “rule of law” men, have taken the nakedly partisan view that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt while Mueller does not. That is fundamentally different from the part Congress played during the Watergate crisis, and it’s not likely to change unless the Democrats take back control of one or both houses of Congress. That, of course, cannot occur for another fourteen months. 

That will be a long, nasty fourteen months, in which the dueling media narratives about objective facts will continue to divide the country. Once, a great majority of Americans got their national news from three TV networks, from radio, or from newspapers untainted by accusations of “fake news” or “alternative facts”; today, millions of Americans will watch Fox News or read Breitbart stories between now and the midterms and come away with a vastly different perception of reality than the rest of us have. The analysis that will follow every development in the looming criminal cases will subject millions to outlandish deceits and disingenuous spin.

In the late 1990s, I covered the Clinton impeachment saga from start to finish. In retrospect, it is easy to see a sad progression in all of this—from Watergate, to Whitewater, to the Lewinsky saga, to the inartfully-titled “Russiagate.” Clinton’s troubles began at the dawn of the Internet age, when he faced Republican majorities in both houses of Congress; yet he survived largely because he enjoyed strong public support even when the scope of his misconduct became clear. Trump moves into this next phase with legislative support, though little public support, in a media age where he can direct coverage 140 characters at a time. The destructive partisanship and media manipulation of the Clinton era took as big a leap forward from the Watergate era as we now see between the Clinton impeachment and the Russia investigation. The country is clearly headed in the wrong direction.

So Mueller and his team will have to face a hostile White House with a president who seems willing to take down the entire democratic apparatus to save his own skin. The special counsel and his fellow prosecutors will have to fend off partisan congressional interference designed to blunt the impact of evidence as it is presented in court. Mueller will also have to deal with public perceptions shaped by propagandists disguised as journalists. And the nation will have to deal with the very real possibility that the president will move to fire Mueller before the Manafort and Gates cases even go to trial.

We are not dealing with Watergate redux. This is a situation far more dangerous to the republic.