Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Five Reasons Why the Comey Affair Is Worse than Watergate

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

The tangled affair now known as Watergate began 45 years ago, before most of today’s U.S. population had even been born. (The median age of Americans is about 38, so most people in the country were born in 1979 or thereafter.) Thus for most people “Watergate” is a historical allusion—obviously negative in its implications, since it led to the only presidential resignation in American history, but probably hazy in its details.

For me, Watergate is anything but hazy. I’d left graduate school and begun my first magazine job, with The Washington Monthly, in the fall of 1972, as news of the scandal emerged. Over the next two years, until Richard Nixon’s resignation, I was living in D.C. and tracking the daily progress in clue-following and domino-toppling via stories in The Washington Post and elsewhere—and then the riveting, televised Watergate hearings that made national celebrities of politicians like Senators Howard Baker and Sam Ervin, and of White House aides like Alexander Butterfield (who revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret system for taping White House conservations) and John Dean (who as White House counsel had told Nixon, “there is a cancer on the presidency”). Anyone of conscious age in that time can probably remember the jolts to national sentiment that the near-daily revelations evoked.

So I’ve been thinking about comparisons between Watergate and the tangled, fast-changing Comey-Russia-Flynn-Trump affair. As with anything involving Donald Trump, we have no idea where this will lead, what is “true,” and when the next bombshell will go off.

But based simply on what is known so far, this scandal looks worse than Watergate. Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself. Here is a summary of some reasons why:

The underlying offense

At some point in the coverage of every scandal you’ll hear the chestnut, “It’s always the cover-up, never the crime.” This refers of course to the historical reality that scandal-bound figures make more problems by denying or lying about their misdeeds than they would if they had come clean from the start.

This saying first became really popular in the Watergate era—which is significant for what it suggests about the gravity of the underlying crime in that case. Richard Nixon’s beleaguered press secretary Ron Ziegler, a Sean Spicer-like figure of that era, oversold the point when he dismissed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters as a “third-rate burglary.” But the worst version of what Nixon and his allies were attempting to do—namely, to find incriminating or embarrassing information about political adversaries ranging from the Democratic party chairman Lawrence O’Brien to Pentagon Papers-whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—was not as bad as what came afterwards. Those later efforts included efforts to derail investigations by the FBI, the police, various grand juries and congressional committees, which collectively amounted to obstruction of justice.

And what is alleged this time? Nothing less than attacks by an authoritarian foreign government on the fundamentals of American democracy, by interfering with an election—and doing so as part of a sustained effort that included parallel interference in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and elsewhere. At worst, such efforts might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy. Not much of this is fully understood or proven, but the potential stakes are incomparably greater than what happened during Watergate, crime and cover-up alike.

The blatancy of the interference

A climactic event of the Watergate saga, the
“Saturday Night Massacre” of October, 1973, is too complex to lay out in full. (More here.) Its essence was a nearly-last-gasp attempt by Nixon to prevent a special prosecutor from getting full access to the Oval Office tapes whose existence had recently become known.

But even in his stonewalling, Nixon paid lip-service to the concept of due process and checks-and-balances. (His proferred solution was something called the “Stennis compromise,” in which the very conservative Senator John Stennis, from Mississippi, would “listen” personally to the tapes and summarize their content. As it happens, Stennis was famous for being practically deaf.) Nixon wanted to survive and win, but he wanted to act as if he was doing so while sticking to some recognizable rules.

Nothing Donald Trump has done, on the campaign trail or in office, has expressed awareness of, or respect for, established rules. Nixon’s private comments could be vile, but nothing he said in public is comparable to Trump’s dismissing James Comey as a “showboat,” or the thuggishly menacing tweet that Trump sent out today: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 May 2017 at 10:30 am

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