On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.
Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.
What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.
We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.
Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory. No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.
Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.
Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.
Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.
But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.