Donald Trump was hardly two months into his presidency when he became mired in a scandal worthy of comparison to Watergate. President Nixon served six years before scandal forced him from office.
It was not the 1972 burglary of Democratic headquarters but Nixon’s attempt to cover it up that ruined his presidency, and it is the unmistakable signs of cover-up that have raised Trump’s scandal to the level of Watergate. In fact Trump’s scandal is worse because it involves the possible sell-out of American democracy to Russia.
Poor Devin Nunes was in way over his head when he decided—or someone assigned him—to perform last week’s bizarre dance to the White House, then to a press conference, then back to brief the president, and back to reporters to announce he had seen something mysteriously disturbing.
It was as if he forgot that he is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee investigating possible Russian involvement in the election of Donald Trump, as if he forgot that his responsibility was to his investigation, to keep his fellow committee members informed, and forgot not to leak information to a possible object of the investigation—the president.
Now, more than a week later, he still has not told his committee what he learned–except that it had to do with intelligence reports and improper unmasking of individuals including the president—and he vowed never to tell anyone who gave him this information. He specifically refused to say it was someone from the White House, though he admitted he saw the material there. That vow was rendered unnecessary by The New York Times and The Washington Post, which promptly identified those sources. Did he really believe that it took Devin Nunes to acquaint the president with White House intelligence reports?
Doesn’t the president have direct access to White House documents without Devin Nunes’s intercession? Of course he does. Does Nunes have access to the White House without a Trump person signing him in? Of course not. Is this the most absurd commedia dell’arte you can imagine? Of course it is.
By Tuesday a 36-year-old junior member of the committee’s minority, Rep. Eric Swalwell, called it by its proper name: “This is what the cover-up to a crime looks like.”
Neither Swalwell nor the committee’s ranking member, Adam Schiff, would go so far as to say Nunes should be permanently replaced as chairman, but both asked him to recuse himself from this investigation.
And Nunes refused, thus torpedoing the credibility his own committee’s investigation and perhaps any congressional investigation of this matter. Though the Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting an apparently more bipartisan inquiry, it seems likely that Nunes has singlehandedly destroyed the public’s trust for congressional handling of the case, thus establishing the need for a nonpartisan, independent commission.
It took the Justice Department, the FBI, and Congress two years to unravel President Nixon’s attempt to rig the 1972 election and his massive conspiracy to cover it up. As it turned out, the rigging wasn’t even necessary; he beat George McGovern by a landslide bigger than Donald Trump’s wildest dreams.
Trump, however, now has an advantage Nixon did not have—a Republican House and Senate and the possibility of a Republican-leaning Supreme Court. Though Nixon destroyed the top level of his Justice Department to fire his special prosecutor, a new one was appointed. And in February 1973 the Senate voted 77-0 to establish a select committee of four Democrats led by Sam Ervin and three Republicans led by Howard Baker.
Their hearings, and aggressive newspaper reporting by The Post and The Times, riveted the nation’s attention throughout that summer and led to the indictment of forty administration officials, the conviction of several Nixon aides, and the initiation of impeachment proceedings against the president.
Ultimately it was the Supreme Court decision ordering Nixon to release recorded oval office conversations that revealed the famous “smoking gun” tape, which proved Nixon had known about the break-in and ordered the cover-up.
On the night of August 7, 1974, the leaders of House and Senate Republicans, John Rhodes and Hugh Scott, plus the Republican icon Barry Goldwater, went to the White House to tell Nixon that his support in Congress was gone, that if the House impeachment resolution came to a vote it would pass and that the Senate would vote to convict. Two days later Nixon resigned.
Like Nixon’s team, Trump supporters are more interested in stopping the flow of information to the public than investigating the attacks on democracy. Now as then they seem to believe that if the leaks can be plugged everything else will be fine, in spite of the vast network of circumstantial evidence of Russia-Trump ties already on the public record.
No matter how hard Sean Spicer tries to distract reporters from that network of evidence by telling them to concentrate on leaks—the real story, he says—all that must not distract us from the war with Russia. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney has called Russia’s cyber attack “an act of war.”
So suppose that, in spite of Mitch McConnell’s repeated assertions that it is unnecessary, a select committee is appointed, or even a special commission outside of Congress. Suppose it decides that laws were broken and there are grounds for impeachment. Who will act on the committee’s report? Will a Republican House majority vote to impeach and a Republican Senate find the necessary two-thirds vote for a guilty verdict?
If Donald Trump’s presidency has been bought and paid for by Vladimir Putin there is also evidence, provided by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, that Trump may also be beholden to the family of the mysterious billionaire Robert Mercer who has challenged the Koch brothers for buying politics in the age of Citizens United.
One may reasonably ask: To whom does Trump owe more, Putin or the Mercers? Or the hapless minority of working Americans who voted for him?
So here we are on the receiving end of an act of war perpetrated by no less formidable an adversary than Russia, and Mr. Nunes is running about like a mama hen protecting her chicks by distracting the fox. His is not responsible behavior, not patriotism, but quite the opposite.
The question is whether an American majority can make itself felt in Republican-controlled states and congressional districts across the country before it’s too late.