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‘Not yet Watergate:’ Similarities, big differences seen in Trump/Russia probe

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One during his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, May 13, 2017. Trump is traveling to Lynchburg, Va., to give the commence address for the Class of 2017 at Liberty University. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For critics eager to equate the controversy surrounding possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia with the Watergate scandal that took down Richard Nixon, last week provided compelling new evidence.

Others, including some who worked with Nixon or reported on his downfall in the early 1970s, say such comparisons are still premature.

Various politicians and pundits have declared various aspects of the investigation to be Watergate-esque for months, so Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and his subsequent suggestion that he secretly recorded their conversations set off all of their alarms.

“On Comey firing, not since Watergate has a president dismissed the person leading an investigation bearing on him,” Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Mich., tweeted.

“I lived through Watergate. This is beginning to look more like it every day. We need an independent investigation,” Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., wrote.

In 1973, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, an act that led to the resignations of the attorney general and his deputy. At the time, Cox was fighting for access to secret recordings Nixon made of his Oval Office meetings.

Nixon also attempted to fold the special prosecutor’s office back into the Department of Justice and eliminate its independence. He ultimately backed down from that effort and turned over the tapes, eventually leading to his resignation.

Even before Trump fired Comey, a few Democrats in Congress were already calling for him to be impeached. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, joined that chorus Monday, citing Trump’s “obstruction of a lawful investigation.”

“He has committed an impeachable act and must be charged,” Green said in a statement. “To do otherwise would cause some Americans to lose respect for, and obedience to, our societal norms.”

Those who take issue with the Watergate analogy would dispute Green’s certainty that a crime has been committed, by Trump or anyone associated with him.

Comey had confirmed to Congress and the public that an investigation is underway into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian operatives who were attempting to interfere in the presidential election. The president has repeatedly dismissed that investigation as “fake news” and a made-up story by Democrats bitter over losing the election.

Geoff Shepard, who worked in Nixon’s White House and on the Watergate defense team wrote in Newsweek that the parallels between the two controversies are exaggerated.

“The firing of Cox was the unprecedented removal an impartial outsider selected to investigate criminal charges,” he said. “Comey was a discredited agency head who grossly abused his legal authority.”

John Dean, a Nixon White House counsel who served four months in prison for his role in the cover-up, has not been shy about criticizing Trump, whom he recently called an “authoritarian klutz.” However, even he balked at the Watergate comparison after Comey was fired.

“It's really not there, given how early it is,” he told U.S. News. “So far this is just a provocative act that is pretty stupid of the White House."

Also disputing the Watergate equivalence was the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Using the hashtag “#notNixonian,” the library tweeted last week that Nixon never fired an FBI director.

The two journalists whose names have become nearly synonymous with Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, agree that this investigation is different, though their opinions diverge on why. Woodward called Trump’s behavior “strange” and said there were many unanswered questions, but he has not seen anything on the level of Nixon’s obstruction of justice.

“This is not yet Watergate -- not a clear crime,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Now that doesn’t mean--you know, we don’t know where this is going. There is a tremendous amount of smoke.”

His onetime reporting partner Bernstein claimed the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia could be even worse than Watergate.

“We are looking at the possibility that the president of the United States and those around him, during an election campaign, colluded with a hostile foreign power to undermine the basis of our democracy: free elections," he said on CNN.

He emphasized that it remains unclear whether a criminal act of obstruction has occurred, but he has no doubt there is a cover-up of some sort underway.

“What we do know is, is that the president of the United States seems to be doing everything in his power to keep us from knowing the facts," he said. "Including firing the director of the FBI because, says the president of the United States, of 'this Russia thing.' So the question of a cover-up seems to me to have been answered a while ago."

Barry Sussman, who was city editor at the Washington Post when the Watergate break-in occurred and later authored “The Great Cover-up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate,” said Monday that it is natural to draw some parallels, even if it is too soon to conclude there was any wrongdoing by Trump or his campaign.

“The main comparison being floated is that Trump, like Nixon, is acting like he has something to hide,” he said. “Another comparison is that both, from the start, dealt with an inquiring press as the enemy and saw themselves as victims.”

According to Keith Olson, author of “Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America,” the Trump/Russia investigation lacks a dramatic inciting incident like the break-in, which led to an immediate cover-up effort involving President Nixon.

“My opinion is it doesn’t measure up to Watergate… Until we get something more concrete, more definite, I just don’t see it,” Olson said Monday.

The latest arguments that this is Watergate 2.0 rest on some obvious factual similarities:

  • Possible criminal activity associated with a presidential campaign
  • A president firing an official leading an investigation into that criminal activity
  • Possible secret recordings of White House meetings

Although Trump’s aides initially attempted to spin Comey’s firing as a result of his flouting of Justice Department policies during the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, the president made clear in an interview with NBC that Comey’s pursuit of the “Russia thing” was a factor.

However, the differences are also significant.

Unlike Cox, Comey was not personally in charge of the Russia investigation. Career FBI agents will presumably continue working the case with or without him. Also unlike Cox, Comey had been subject to criticism from both parties for his recent conduct.

Nixon was known to be one of the people Cox was investigating. The targets of the FBI investigation under Comey are unknown to the public.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that he’s investigating Donald Trump at all,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

According to Tom Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University, there seems to be a lot of effort going into covering up something, but it is unclear what that is.

“The problem is we don’t yet know what the real crime is,” he said. “There’s a murder without a body is the way I look at it.”

There is a possibility of Logan Act violations, but Whalen doubts there will be accountability without an independent prosecutor or a shift in power in Congress that gives Democrats control in 2018.

“It kind of smells like some sort of obstruction of justice, but again, what exactly are they obstructing?” he asked.

There are also distinctions in the impact these scandals could have on the public’s mood and confidence in the government.

“Watergate was just a tag-on to Vietnam in building distrust of government,” Sussman said. “Now bewilderment is being added to distrust.”

When considering the effect on the public consciousness, Watergate and Vietnam cannot be separated, according to Whalen. Following a period of high levels of faith in leaders and government, those events brought that confidence crashing down.

“In tandem, that’s what makes Watergate worse, what came before,” he said.

On the other hand, trust in government institutions and in Trump himself was already low long before he took office.

Nordlinger noted a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found tepid response to Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but no sign that it changed people’s opinions of Trump. Only 29 percent of respondents approved, while 38 percent disapproved and 32 percent did not have an opinion.

“I think the attitudes toward Donald Trump are so firm and so well-established that if you like Trump you’re blowing this off,” he said.

Regardless of what the FBI investigation or the congressional probes of Russia’s interference uncover, Whalen said the political damage may already be done. Trump’s evasive behavior and the blowback over his firing of Comey threaten to derail his legislative agenda as Congress grapples with the consequences, and it is difficult to imagine any conclusion will put all of the questions to rest.

“Even if there is no crime committed here that they can trace to the president, the perception will always be out there,” he said. “This is just manna for conspiracy theorists.”

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