As Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate possible Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential race, there are distinct echoes of the Watergate scandal that cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
Monday’s indictments of former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and protege Rick Gates – along with disclosure that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos confessed to lying to the FBI – come after the president fired the FBI director and three key Trump associates failed to initially disclose interactions with Russians.
That’s led many to compare today’s investigation with Watergate.
However, there are no signs so far of two landmark aspects of Watergate that proved to be tipping points: White House attorney John Dean breaking ranks to deliver incriminating testimony and “Deep Throat” source Mark Felt leaking otherwise secret FBI developments.
“Any time you have an issue, you look for a model or precedent — and with the current investigation, there aren’t very many,” said Nixon biographer Luke Nichter, explaining the frequent comparisons to Watergate. “But we don’t even know if Trump is being investigated. Nixon was clearly being investigated.”
Raphael Sonenshein, who runs CSU Los Angeles’ Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, also warns against drawing too many comparisons at this stage. At the same time, he’s among those who see the Mueller’s investigation picking up steam.
“I think Monday made a lot of people nervous,” Sonenshein said of the indictments. “I think everybody believes there’s more to come, that Mueller’s team is building its case. This is going faster than we thought it would.”
Dean himself opined in July that Trump, in criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation, was reacting to growing pressure.
“Trump is beginning to feel the investigation closing in on him,” Dean wrote in a Verdict online piece titled, “Trump’s Mueller Scheming Will Fail.
Like Monday’s indictments, the September 1972 indictments of the five “White House Plumbers” who broke into the Watergate Office Building headquarters of the Democratic National Committee did not, at the time, have a direct connection to the president. But they marked the beginning of an investigative path that would lead to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation nearly two years later.
“The main parallels I see between the Watergate indictments and the ones now is that it gives investigators leverage to find out all sorts of details that would otherwise be hard to observe,” said UC Irvine political scientist Matthew Beckmann. “In Watergate, indictments got investigators past the spin to discover the underlying crimes.
“The key question remains whether or not Trump – or his key advisers – engaged in criminal activity and (Monday’s indictments) will help Mueller answer that question.”
Nichter noted that as the Watergate investigation gained traction, those close to the crime and the subsequent cover-up began hiring lawyers. That will be something to watch for in the current investigation, he said.
“Those are signals that will let us know that things are unraveling,” he said.
Trump supporter John Berry categorically dismisses comparisons to Watergate – as well as the possibility the presidential candidate colluded with Russians. He reiterated Trump’s point that money laundering and related charges against Manafort and Gates, while tied to pro-Russian interests in the Ukraine, concerned Manafort’s business interests before he joined the Trump campaign.
The Redlands resident also brushes aside the case against Papadopoulos, who was told by an intermediary that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” well before WikiLeaks released hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, also tried to arrange meetings between the campaign and Russian officials, according to his guilty plea. However, nothing in the plea document indicates such meetings occurred.
“They’re projecting a lot more authority on him than he had,” said Berry, a California coordinator for the Tea Party. “This is all designed (by investigators) to keep the media bluster alive.”
Dana Point’s James V. Lacy, a Trump delegate to the GOP convention last year, also sees nothing nefarious in the meetings with Russians by Papadopoulos and other Trump associates.
“If there were efforts from the Russians to make nice, you don’t want to rebuff them,” said Lacy, co-author of the recently published “California’s War Against Donald Trump” and an attorney in the Reagan administration. “My view of the evidence so far is that the campaign was trying to get information against its opponents however it could, within the law.”
Unlike Berry, Lacy sees little inappropriate in the Mueller’s investigation. But he shares Berry’s desire to see Clinton receive similar scrutiny for possible Russia connections.
Among Clinton-related concerns of Berry and Lacy: Her campaign’s “Steele dossier” of opposition research into Trump, compiled by a contracted firm, allegedly contained information delivered by Russians; the brother of her campaign manager had business ties to Manafort; and, as secretary of state, Clinton sat on a committee that green-lighted a Russian financial interest in U.S. uranium production – although it’s unclear if Clinton had any role in the decision.
Nixon was impeached by the House of Representatives for obstruction of justice – a case fueled by his efforts to cover up events related to the Watergate break-in. But the break-in itself was not among the charges.
After the May 10 firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” according to a document quoted by The New York Times.
This is among several public statements some point to as Trump’s efforts to obstruct investigations into Russian collusion, including a May 11 comment to NBC’s Lester Holt, “When I decided to (fire Comey), I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
Additionally, Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner initially failed to disclose a meeting with Russians when applying for security clearance, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not mention meeting Russians during his confirmation hearings and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn failed to list payments he received from Russian government-owned media in his financial disclosure.
But political scientist Beckmann said, “None of these is a smoking gun.” The phrase “smoking gun”gained currency during Watergate, when it was used to refer to an incriminating portion of Nixon’s secret tapes in which the president discussed interfering with the FBI investigation.
Beckmann pointed out that when Nixon fired Special Investigator Archibald Cox, he was in a much more precarious situation than Trump was.
“Trump fired Comey much earlier, which is partly why it remains unclear whether this was criminal obstruction or just presidential frustration,” he said.
More critical at this juncture is determining whether a crime of collusion occurred, Beckmann and CSULA’s Sonenshein agreed. If the president was involved with collusion, that would overshadow obstruction of justice charges – but it is far from clear if Congress would impeach him and the Senate would then hold a trial and remove him from office.
If others – but not Trump – were involved in collusion and the president subsequently attempted to cover it up, the question again arises of whether Congress would impeach and remove him.
If Watergate is any guide, that decision could be two years away.
The first Watergate indictments were Sept. 15, 1972. Televised hearings by the Senate Watergate Committee launched eight months later, impeachment hearings began a year after that and he was impeached 3 1/2 months later.
But that was a Democrat-controlled Congress – Republicans control the House and Senate now. That will continue at least until the next Congress is sworn in January 2019. Only a few GOP Congress members have been outspoken in their criticism of Trump and two of the most prominent among those – Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker – plan to step down when their current term concludes at the end of next year.
“Until they feel any pain, you’re probably going to see congressional Republicans sticking with Trump,” said biographer Nichter. “They don’t love him very much, but they just don’t have any place else to go.”
Beckmann agreed that impeachment is unlikely and that Trump will remain a force among the Republican base despite his low approval ratings, which Gallup currently puts at 35 percent.
“However,” Beckmann said, “I imagine Trump becoming such a pariah inside Washington that he announces he will not run for reelection, a la Lyndon Johnson in 1968.”
source: daily news