During the 1972 presidential election, the Republican Campaign Committee was concerned about the number of leaks that were being reported. Sound familiar? So they put together a small group of conspirators called, appropriately, The Plumbers, to get to the bottom of their problem and stop the leaks.
Their first attempt to bug the offices of the Democrat National Committee, located in a building named Watergate, was thwarted by an alert security guard who noticed that one of the doors to the building had been left propped open. The Nixon campaign dismissed this crime as a “third-rate burglary” and disavowed any knowledge of it. Had they admitted that this was just one of the many “dirty tricks” played by both sides in Washington, and that heads would roll, then the course of American history might be vastly different.
It should not be overlooked that Nixon won the election in 1972 in a true “landslide” victory. The Watergate burglary certainly would have hurt Nixon, but it would not have been a mortal wound.
The major break in the story, as everyone who has seen the movie “All The President’s Men” knows, came when an anonymous source “Deep Throat” told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward “to follow the money.” He and his co-writer Carl Bernstein painstakingly did so, eventually linking the money paid to The Plumbers back to the Nixon Campaign. While top Nixon administration officials, including the current Attorney General John Mitchell, were implicated, Nixon himself was able to maintain “plausible deniability” of any knowledge of the actions of his subordinates.
When Congress formed a bi-partisan committee to investigate the Watergate incident, Nixon – along with top advisers Haldeman, Erhlichmann, and John Dean – tried every trick in the book to keep White House staffers from testifying before the committee. They tried to invoke executive privilege. The courts shot that down. The witnesses who did end up testifying became famous for their total loss of memory. In answer to the repeated question “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” the favorite response became “I don’t recall.” Or “To the best of my recollection…..”
That was until a relatively unknown White House staffer named Alexander Butterfield, in sworn testimony, mentioned almost in passing that all conversations in the Oval Office had been taped. Everyone remotely related to politics in Washington, D.C. fully expected Nixon to burn or destroy these tapes immediately. Had he done so, he would never been forced to resign. But whether it was the hubris of the Office that made him think he was above the law, or his stated purpose that he taped his conversations for his memoirs, he made a critical misjudgment. For just as soon as a federal judge issued a subpoena for those tapes, he could no longer touch them.
While Nixon himself likely had little or nothing to do with ordering the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, the tapes revealed that he and his senior advisors were actively involved in covering up his campaign’s involvement in the event. It was the cover up, not the crime, that brought Nixon down.
The so-called “smoking gun” was the revelation that Nixon wanted the CIA to stop the FBI investigation into the scandal. Congress, along with the American people, clearly recognized this for what it was – obstruction of justice. And Articles of Impeachment were drawn up.
For the Trump administration, the parallels are frighteningly similar. Trump may not have been involved in collusion with the Russian government. We don’t know that yet. But if his attempt to protect one or more of his subordinates who might have committed a crime led to his asking the Director of the FBI to drop a criminal investigation, then he is treading in very dangerous waters. As Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer said this week following James Comey’s testimony “If Trump weren’t under investigation before, he is now.”
The Watergate scandal was a long national nightmare that thankfully ended when Richard Nixon became the first President in history to resign. America is in for another long haul as well. It took two years from the time of the original break-in to Nixon’s resignation. Nixon was a known quantity in politics. Trump, on the other hand, is completely unpredictable. It is far too soon to know how this will play out.
And as was the case with the Watergate scandal, the real victim here is not Nixon or Trump. The real victim is the American people.