I have both written and referenced the striking similarities between Trump-Russia and Watergate on several occasions. So have a lot of others. And for good reason. The unbridled lust for power of both Nixon and Trump, the penchant for absolute secrecy, even when it is not necessary, and the personal paranoia of both men are case studies in corruption.
Right now all of the fascination and attention on the unraveling Trump scandal is on the unholy trinity of Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. And for good reason. All have stories to tell. Flynn has already been caught colluding with the Russian ambassador. Manafort and Kushner are both giving off vibes that they have a lot of interesting things to say, if the price is right. And most tantalizing, getting any or all of them to roll, and as soon as possible could be a big, beautiful shortcut in ending the national nightmare that is Donald Trump. But are we once again all being distracted by the shiny object?
I’ll admit it, I’ve always been fascinated by Watergate. I was in high school, already highly interested in politics, and this was the ultimate civics lesson. I read “All the Presidents Men” so often that the pages fell out. And, in the days before Google, I read most of the historical books on the subject that I could find. I’ll be honest, in recent days, as this Trump debacle continues to collapse, I have revisited Watergate, (but not the book), both in nostalgia, and also more in a research mode. And in doing so, I have found something in the similarities that has given me pause to think, and to reconsider the actual dynamics.
Both scandals had their rogues galleries. Right now, Kushner, Manafort and Flynn are the Trump version. For Nixon it was HR Haldeman, John Erlichman and Chuck Colson. All six of them were high up, and had access to information what could damage, and possibly cripple and end a Presidency.
But there is a huge divergence at this point. The major difference is that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson were all long time confidants, and rabidly loyal to Nixon, they all went to federal prison rather than roll on Nixon. Trump does not have this luxury. Manafort was foist on him as campaign CEO in order to “normalize” the campaign. Flynn may well be a rabid supporter, but he is not a long term confidant, his skin will come first. Only Kushner has a long, loyal history with Trump, and he gives off vibes of being just enough of a sniveling shit to roll on Da Boss to save his own skin.
This comparison made me ask myself a question. “So, what the hell actually brought Nixon down”? It certainly wasn’t Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson, they all took their lumps and went to the crossbar Hilton like good loyal soldiers. And besides, they only came to light once the attention was already turned on the White House, and details started coming out. What actually fueled the investigation and gave it direction?
Turns out it was unknowns. I suppose the actual architect of the Watergate investigation would be Mark Felt, at the time the #2 man at the FBI, who will forever be known to the world as “Deep Throat”. Felt is the one who secretly met with WaPo reporter Bob Woodward, whom he already knew, and started giving him cryptic hints on what to look for to connect the Watergate burglars back to the White House. The “kill shot” may have been Felt’s revelation to Woodward that one of the Watergate burglars had The address of one E. Howard Hunt in his address book, as well as some checks signed by Hunt. Hunt was a CIA operative, one of the White House “plumbers”, and in direct contact with guess who? None other than Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s closest confidants. Hunt also went to prison rather than roll.
The man who sent Nixon into exile was John Dean, Nixon’s counsel. But Dean also did not have the depth of ties to Nixon that the others did. Nonetheless, Dean toed the code of silence, until he came to at least believe that as the short man on the loyalty totem pole, he was being set up as the fall guy for Watergate. He informed Watergate investigators that he had discussed the coverup with Nixon 35 times, then testified in the Watergate hearings.
Here’s my takeaways from my research and musings. First, the key source is the leaks, at least until someone in either the Trump campaign or administration is under enough pressure to spill. When the early Watergate investigation stalled periodically, it was always “Deep Throat” or another source who gave it a push to get it back on track. I have a feeling that the same thing will go here. Whomever originally leaked here has a stake or interest in this, they are not going to want to risk being exposed or having the investigation come to nothing.
My second takeaway is to watch the White House staff. Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, but they were loyal. Dean was fired, and this only intensified his efforts to clean himself up as much as possible. Under pressure, Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s former appointments secretary testified that all Oval Office phone calls had been taped since 1971. Watch the White House firings and resignations over the next few months, especially if the investigation begins to pick up steam and more revelations come out.
It may have already started. The White House announced that a deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh resigned to take a position at a struggling non profit pushing for Trump’s agenda. What? Sounds to me like kind of a comedown in both pay and prestige, going from WH deputy chief of staff to a struggling non profit. Walsh was Priebus’ chief of staff at the RNC, and came over to the WH. Is Trump worried about what she might know or have heard, and who her loyalty lies with? Also watch resignations, and the higher up the better. To my mind, there can only be two reasons at this point to resign. Either the person is appalled with the administration and wants nothing more to do with it, in which case they may spill what little or lot they do know to save their reputation, or they may know something, and want to get out before they have FBI agents in their offices. Either way, I hope the FBI interviews them all, if for no better reason than to dot-the-i’s and cross-the-t’s.
A quick rollover from Kushner, Manafort or Flynn, and a quick end to the Trump Presidency would be wonderful, but Watergate teaches us that not jumping the gun, doing the donkey work and being able to close the case on it’s own merits and investigation is slower, but sometimes even more effective.