Jules Witcover: Watergate deja vu
WASHINGTON – It’s said that those who ignore the lessons of history are destined to repeat its mistakes. In a remarkably uncanny way, Donald Trump is guilty of duplicating the political follies of presidential predecessor Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of 45 years ago that drove him from the Oval Office.
Nixon’s efforts to thwart the investigation against him by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox led to obstruction of justice charges, bringing him to the brink of impeachment and forcing his resignation. Trump now finds himself accused of similar obstruction of investigations that could lead to another presidential removal.
The Washington Post, whose young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward unearthed the crimes and cover-up that undid Nixon, has now reported that Trump unsuccessfully pressured two high-ranking government intelligence officials to end the search for evidence of collusion between him or his campaign team and the Russians in the 2016 election.
But there were sharp difference between the two episodes. The Watergate break-in to the Democratic National Committee by Nixon political agents was clearly a criminal action. Nixon later said on the White House tapes that he was ready and able to bribe them to remain silent or deny culpability. It was an open-and-shut case of intentional obstruction of justice.
The current episode as reported by the Post involves no such irrefutable, tangible evidence, only anonymous reportorial accounts that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Indiana Republican senator, and Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, to say there was no evidence of collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election.
The accounts said both Coats and Rogers refused, considering the presidential requests inappropriate, and that there were corroborating memos written. The Post also said an unidentified White House official close to Trump was under investigation on the issue of collusion with the Russians.
All this at this stage is a far cry from the case built, drip by drip, by congressional inquiries and hearings against Nixon, from the break-in of the Watergate in July 1972 to his ultimate resignation in August 1974.
The shocking testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973 by White House aide Alexander Butterfield that Nixon’s office had a secret automatic taping system capturing his detailed discussions with principal aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman blew the case wide open.
Nixon’s order to Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox triggered the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of November 1973 in which both Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned, leaving the Cox firing to the third-in-command, Solicitor General Judge Robert Bork, to do the odious deed.
The investigation continued under Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, with Nixon clinging to the presidency until the tapes finally revealed the “smoking gun” of his obstruction of justice. Six days after the break-in, Haldeman told him: “The way to handle this thing is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray” — that is, Deputy FBI Director Vernon Walters call the acting FBI director. “Just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this. This, ah, business here, we don’t want you to go any further on it.’ “ Gray then did as he was told.
Nixon fought the release of the tapes until the Supreme Court finally ruled that they be made public, creating another sensation. Six days later, Nixon resigned after Republican congressional leaders by Sen. Barry Goldwater went to the White House and told him he didn’t have the votes to beat his impending impeachment.
From all this, it seems Trump’s self-inflicted political wounds trying to shake the early consequences of “that Russian thing” have considerable distance and time yet to go before he may face Nixon’s ultimate fate of exile from the office he narrowly won only six months ago.
Predictably, Trump can be counted on to dismiss the developing case of obstruction of justice against him as more of the “fake news” he has been condemning to build his own case that the nation’s mainstream news media is out reverse the will of the American people as voiced last November.