It was a rather eventful week for President Trump, one that began with the nation debating whether he’s mentally unstable and ended with the nation debating whether he’s a racist. No reasonable person believes anymore the oft-stated hypothesis that whatever appalling thing he said today is merely a clever misdirection to distract you from some much more serious appalling thing he’s up to. It all happens simultaneously, with no plan or strategy driving it forward apart from stupidity, boundless bad faith, and the occasional dollop of panic.
And underneath it all is the Russia scandal, like a backbeat to the manic tune being played every day in Washington. While we are often too quick to look for historical analogies, Russia is looking more like Watergate all the time.
Unlike our other recent mega-scandals (Lewinsky, Iran-Contra), both Watergate and Russia have their roots in elections, where the president’s campaign stepped far outside the bounds of ethical or (perhaps) legal behavior in its attempt to win. And in both cases, for a long time the complexity of the scandal and the number of people involved made it difficult for many people to grasp.
Depending on when you want to start the clock, we’re about a year and half into the Russia scandal. But Watergate took a long time to unravel, too. The break-in that started it occurred in June 1972; Richard Nixon didn’t resign until August 1974. And as the scandal spooled out, it gradually became apparent that not only was Richard Nixon deeply corrupt, he had surrounded himself with figures who were equally corrupt. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Hunt, Colson, Liddy—when there were laws to be broken or schemes to enact, they were ready and willing.
I’m certain that when we look back on the Trump administration, we’ll see something similar, that not only is Trump himself corrupt, but many of the people around him are as well. Can you imagine Barack Obama hiring someone like Paul Manafort—long known as one of the sleaziest operators in Washington, even before we knew about the money laundering—to run his campaign? Of course not. And he’s just the beginning. Donald Trump has spent a lifetime acting as though the rules don’t apply to him, because they usually don’t. And so he has attracted people who feel the same way, or have ambitions to act as though they can get away with anything they want, whether we’re talking about his real estate dealings or his campaign.
One of the defenses that has been offered of Trump himself, his family members, and some of his aides is that they were new at all this, with little or no experience in politics. That should never be an excuse, but it may help us explain their thinking at critical moments. For instance, when Donald Trump Jr. was offered the opportunity to meet with a group of Russians with Kremlin connections offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, someone with political experience might have said, My god, if I take that meeting and it ever gets out, it could destroy the campaign. Even someone without that experience might have said, As a patriotic American I can’t imagine doing this. Don Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
And of course, he then got Manafort and Jared Kushner to join him in the meeting, all of them eager to have the Russians’ help. You can put the fact that they were dumb enough to take the meeting down to inexperience (though that wouldn’t apply to Manfort), but more importantly, they thought it would be perfectly fine to enlist the aid of a hostile foreign power in their campaign. And when the meeting came to light, the president himself personally dictated a ridiculously misleading statement for Don Jr. to release in order to fool the public about what had happened.
It’s certainly possible that the scandal won’t actually reach Donald Trump himself, at least not the part about Russian collusion.
It’s certainly possible that the scandal won’t actually reach Donald Trump himself, at least not the part about Russian collusion. Maybe it all happened without him knowing about it, with underlings skittering about taking meetings and making phone calls while the candidate remained oblivious. That’s what many people thought about Watergate, too. For a long time, the defense of President Nixon revolved around the idea that whatever some over-enthusiastic underlings might have done, they certainly weren’t acting on the president’s orders. The “third-rate burglary,” as White House press secretary Ron Ziegler called it, had nothing to do with Nixon himself.
That turned out to be false; while Nixon didn’t order the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate, almost immediately after the burglars were arrested he began directing the effort to keep concealed the various illegal activities being carried out in his name. Likewise, even if Trump didn’t direct the ham-handed attempts by his campaign to cooperate with Russia, we already know that he made quite an effort to shut down the investigation into the scandal, which looks an awful lot like obstruction of justice.
Because (unlike Nixon) Trump is a fool, he announced on national television that he fired FBI director James Comey in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the investigation (“When I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won'”). Then he told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” adding, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
That’s the tip of the iceberg of obstruction of justice, which was by no coincidence the offense that brought Watergate right into the Oval Office. Just as the articles of impeachment against Nixon cited his attempt to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation, Trump reportedly asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene with Comey and urge the latter to back off his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump was working suspiciously hard to protect.
And just as Bob Woodward was told by Deep Throat to “Follow the money” (in the Hollywood version of the Watergate story, though not in real life), Special Counsel Robert Mueller is most definitely following the money, both Trump’s and that of people around him. As the founders of Fusion GPS recently wrote, in their investigation of Trump, “we found widespread evidence that Mr. Trump and his organization had worked with a wide array of dubious Russians in arrangements that often raised questions about money laundering.” If that part of the investigation doesn’t lead to the discovery of multiple crimes, it will be a shock.
When we marvel at Trump supporters who will excuse almost anything the president does, we should remember that until very close to the end of his presidency, Nixon retained the support of most Republicans, who convinced themselves that the scandal was overblown and the president was being hounded unfairly by partisan opponents and a biased press. Had it not been for the release of the White House tapes with their incontrovertible evidence of Nixon’s guilt, he might well have been able to continue in office.
There are some differences between the Russia scandal and Watergate, of course. Part of what protected Nixon for a long time was the fact the idea that the president of the United States was essentially running a criminal organization out of the Oval Office seemed too outlandish to believe. That is not the situation today. Given the Grand Guignol that each moment of the Trump presidency presents us with, there is almost no level of corruption or illegality on the part of this president that will come as a surprise if it is revealed. We remember Watergate, and we know how a story like this one can end.