Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Worse than Watergate: The stakes are higher today

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
The emerging scandal surrounding Trump raises profound questions about foreign influence in our executive branch.

When President Donald J. Trump fired FBI director James Comey last week, the emerging scandal around his presidency immediately brought Watergate to mind.

Michael J. Lansing

Numerous commentators noted the similarities to a series of events during Richard Nixon’s 1973 effort to cover up Watergate. Nixon decided to fire the special prosecutor — Archibald Cox — investigating the Democratic National Committee break-in. U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and U.S. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to follow Nixon’s order. Instead, they resigned.

Finally, U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork agreed to fire Cox, who at the time was attempting to obtain secret White House tape recordings. Aghast at this blatant violation of procedure and the public trust, other appointees across the Nixon administration resigned in protest. The whole incident — known as the Saturday Night Massacre — proved to be a turning point in the Watergate scandal.

Beginning of the end for Nixon

Nixon’s abuse of executive power over that crucial weekend in October 1973 signaled the beginning of the end of his presidency. His bald-faced effort to halt the investigation stemming from the Watergate burglary backfired. Many in the press and in Congress declared the act as an attempt by the President to position himself beyond the law. As a result, the political winds shifted. Many of Nixon’s fellow Republicans decided that their own political futures might be cut short by the president’s unprecedented actions. Nine months later, facing articles of impeachment, Nixon resigned.

It’s easy to see why comparisons between the firing of Comey and the Saturday Night Massacre hold great appeal. Both moments involved controversial presidents in divisive times. Both moments offered drama. Both moments offered departures from accepted practice. Both moments increased suspicion that executive wrongdoing occurred. Both moments shook the political establishment to the core.

But emphasizing the similarities between the two events feeds many people’s wish to see this moment as a turning point, as the beginning of the end for Trump. It may not be. The vocal protest of Comey’s firing largely — though not entirely — fell along familiar partisan lines. By nearly any measure, the Republican Party is not yet ready to turn on their president. Neither are many Americans who voted for Trump. Nor is there yet a special prosecutor — legally independent from any political interference by any party — investigating the Trump administration.

Profound questions about foreign influence

To be sure, Comey’s firing might yet backfire. But the most important thing the comparison between the Comey firing and Watergate tells us is that the stakes are much higher today. The Watergate scandal emerged from an attempt by the president to cover up his administration’s connections to a botched partisan burglary. Nixon’s attempt to cover up the wrongdoing proved to be worse than the original crime.

In contrast, the emerging scandal surrounding Trump raises profound questions about foreign influence in our executive branch. Paid foreign agents not only helped elect a president, but operated in the highest levels of government. Michael Flynn’s stint as the president’s national security adviser — despite repeated warnings by the nation’s top law enforcement and intelligence officials about the ways in which he had been compromised — suggests the presence of a grave threat to the republic itself. Recent allegations that President Trump shared highly classified information with top Russian officials raise the stakes even higher.

When combined with the Trump administration’s recent moves to engage in nothing less than widespread voter suppression, one wonders if our nation’s legislative branch — either through committee-led investigations or a sweeping 2018 election realignment that brings Democrats to power in Congress — can do much about it. In a hyperpartisan moment shot through with short-term thinking, it is hard to imagine what it might take for Republicans to abandon Trump.

History's echoes are no guide

History never repeats itself. Do not mistake history’s echoes for a guide as to what will happen.

This is not a constitutional crisis. It is a crisis of republican government. We cannot depend on Congress, or investigative journalists, to save us. Only vigilance, patriotism, and dedication to the nation’s democratic aspirations by “we the people” will ensure that the United States, as we know it, survives.

Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Augsburg College. 

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)

 

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

Comments (32)

Well, "yes" and "no".

Trump's malfeasance is like an iceberg, one suspects that the Comey affair is but the visible tip, and more will be revealed, and as THAT happens it's possible Republican's will jump ship.

The real differences between the Trump and Nixon presidencies are: 1). Unlike Trump, Nixon was NOT a complete and total incompetent. 2). Unlike Nixon, Trump entered the White House as the most unpopular and distrusted president in US history. And 3). Unlike Nixon era Republicans, Trump era Republicans have little or no integrity, and tend to be intellectual dullards.

That 3rd difference is going to keep Trump in office more than likely until the next midterms when Republican's might lose congressional majorities. Unlike the Nixon era Republicans Trump era Republicans vote straight down party lines no matter how ridiculous the vote is. And unlike Nixon Republicans Trump Republicans rely almost exclusively on magical thinking, so their ability to recognize and evaluate the political dangers Trump represents is questionable. For these reasons Republican will likely support Trump as long as the have a majority to do so, whereas Republican support for Nixon eventually collapsed to the point where impeachment was inevitable, prompting Nixon's resignation.

I think it's far more likely that Trump will resign of his own accord, simply because he's so completely out of his depth and unable to stabilize his government. As he's recently discovered, being president of the US is a difficult and demanding job, and someone who's spent his whole life avoiding difficult and demanding jobs is simply not up to the task at the the age of 70. This is just not how a guy like Trump wants to spend 4 years of his life.

As far as vigilance is concerned, I have to disagree with the author quite strongly. If vigilance is our only salvation we're screwed because American's are the least vigilant people on earth. Any discussion with any Trump voter will quickly reveal that fact, and with the otherwise lowest vote turnouts in the developed world even occasional elections will not be our salvation. From climate change to vaccines Americans are so easily mislead and misinformed it's almost absurd to expect that "vigilance" will play any significant role in preserving our democracy.

In fact, oddly enough, our nations constitutional crises have always been resolved by our institutions rather than popular demand. The courts or Congress have always checked the executive one way or another while a bemused population watches from a distance. Sure, people have opinions, but beyond elections there's really nothing people can do once someone is elected, it's up the courts and Congress. The problem with Congress is that Republicans currently have a majority, and Republicans don't know how even believe in representing their constituents, in fact Republicans typically attack their constituents in a variety of ways (consider the recent health care votes for instance). Nor do Republicans seem to understand Constitutions be they State or Federal.

Paul, if you have ever wondered why regular folks don't

see eye to eye with Lefty Elites all you have to do is read your "Trump era Republicans have little or no integrity and tend to be intellectual dullards". Geez no wonder the Left doesn't want a dialogue, folks who disagree with them have no integrity and are stupid... I may be wrong but that doesn't sound like a good way to bring folks together... It will be interesting if any of the folks who lean left think this is a bit over the top. I guess when you think "Republicans can't understand constitutions be they State or Federal " it is hard to have common ground!!

Actually...

I don't represent the liberal elite, and frankly I'm not looking for common ground with toxic ideology, we have to move beyond that, join this rabble or not, it's up to you.

In terms of regular folks, the fact is that if you drill down into almost any issue you will find a greater number of American's agreeing with liberal agendas than otherwise. Conservatives like to declare themselves to be majorities of different kinds, and they've been doing that for decades, but it's always been a delusion, they've been wedge issuing themselves into a minority for decades. Trump is NOT a popular president.

Paul, if the liberal agenda is more popular

how come the GOP has 33 Governorships, both Houses and the White House? Evidently the majority don't agree with you. Trump won over 80% of the counties in the country. Again, liberal elites living in big cities have lost touch with regular folks... The proof is in the voting... Now that is a fact!

Joe,

Republicans win by promising to be more liberal, i.e. "bi-partisan", a promise they invariably break once in office. For instance promising jobs, roads and bridges, etc. Even their tax cuts are sold as middle class salvation for "regular" people. "Populism" is a liberal principle, the idea that that government should work for the majority instead of a elite minority. Now why American voters keep falling that bait and switch over and over and over again is a different story.

It's also important to distinguish election results from popular sentiment, especially when more than 50% of the population isn't voting. This why Republicans can win legislative majorities for instance, but then their ballot initiatives to restrict voting and marriage rights fail.

The claim that election results, no matter how thin, give Republicans some kind of ideological mandate or majority has always been facile.

"Russiagate"

Crisis of republican government is right. A big part of the crisis is that the public is left completely in the dark about matters that should be completely out in the open. Like President trump's taxes for instance.

Is "Russiagate" about the possible involvement of the Trump campaign in Russian interference in the 2016 election including the hacking of DNC and Clinton campaign e-mails? Or does it involve deeper connections between Trump and the Russian government? Or does it involve Trump's possible involvement with organized crime (both in the US and Russian)? Or some combination of the foregoing?

There are more questions than answers the crisis for republican government is only going to deepen unless the present "Republican government" in power starts to acknowledge that they hold the keys to resolving it.

Perhaps the most

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of our current crisis in Constitutional government (it's not just the republic; it's the United States of America as a nation of laws under the Constitution) is the total abdication of responsibility by the Republican Congress for the mess that Donald Trump is constantly creating and exacerbating.

Vigilance by the public is necessary, of course. But when the vigilant public's concerns are met by Congressional silence from the Republican majority--which determines what gets done and what does not get done--we devolve into a situation where the only protections the nation has are the courts (which Trump is filling with right-wing ideologues) and the press.

Trump, of course, and without Republican censure, has begun to recommend the jailing of journalists who publish news that Trump doesn't like. He denigrates major and respected news organizations and prioritizes the alternative "right" press. He excludes the U.S. press from important meetings (note: the Russian new agency Tass had someone present at the entire meeting last week between Trump and the Russian ambassador and foreign minister; the U.S. press was barred from entry to the meeting). Republicans insist that who the "leakers" of White House secrets are is more important than what information is leaked, and more important than the President himself revealing highly classified information to the Russians--they assert that, because he's President, any sudden "declassification" Trump makes of our secret intelligence is just a matter of course. Republicans are excusing Trump's outrages at every turn, vilifying any American who concludes that we are, indeed, in a crisis with this president.

If Congress, led by Republicans, declines to exercise its role as a check to Presidential hubris and dictatorial actions, we're lost.

The templet continues...

Mr. Lansing,

I enjoyed your article and the rehash of history. However the following statements you made you have obviously abandoned your historical training in favor of modern day "journalism."

" Paid foreign agents not only helped elect a president...."

"When combined with the Trump administration’s recent moves to engage in nothing less than widespread voter suppression..."

Haven't you heard?

All one needs to convict a Republican is anonymous secondary or tertiary sources. The FBI doesn't even need to examine the DNC servers for evidence of Russian phishing. Just take the word of the private company hired by the DNC.

Gosh, Trump demands personal

Gosh, Trump demands personal loyalty from the FBI director, tries to stop an investigation into Flynn, tweets a threat to the FBI director, fires him because of the Russia investigation, lies about Comey clearing him.

Direct from either Trump or Comey.

Not anonymous, not secondary, not tertiary.

But hey, blame Hillary--if it makes you feel better.

“Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.”
― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Consider this Possibility

Has it ever occurred to you that the "liberal media" is right? That Trump is not only a dishonest, ill-mannered tin horn, he is the least competent President to occupy the White House since James Buchanan? That the accusations against him could be true?

You could, of course, tell us why those stories are false. Just saying "journalism" or "media" means nothing.

False?

WaPo claims, "President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week ..." ; this claim based on anonymous sources.

Lt. General McMaster, a source credible, named and present at the meeting, “At no time, at no time, where intelligent sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of the State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. They’re on the record accounts should outweigh anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen,”

You believe unnamed sources because they say what you want to hear. The popularity of fake news will continue; it gets the clicks, and clicks bring the revenue.

Except of course

The part where Trump admitted and then attempted to defend doing just that.

No.

Cannot cite a reference for your claim?

Two tweets:

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,”

“Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

I don't know under what rock

I don't know under what rock you've been hiding. But news programs on all kinds of channels have noted that McMaster (whose statement is verbatim what other White House sources repeat without citing him--i.e., they're scripted) did not address the real stuff disclosed willy-nilly by our not-a-clue President: He disclosed the intelligence itself, the secret information. From that, the Russians easily could reverse-engineer the intel to figure out where Israel has undercover agents it took them years to establish.

In other words, from what he blurted out, Trump has perhaps ruined a vital source of intelligence and permitted the Russians to figure out how to counter it. From the information he gave, Russia now has sources and processes! Trump didn't have to do it directly, but he's too ignorant to comprehend that he did give methods and sources indirectly.

Immediately after the Trump-Russian officials' meeting, Trump's aides rushed to notify the CIA and the NSA and Defense Intelligence that our President had just made a gigantic classified-material blooper. Aides also "scrubbed" the transcript of the meeting, so the secrets that Trump revealed would not be spread.

At No Time

At no time does Gen. McMaster deny that classified information was disclosed. Sources, methods, and military operations were not discussed, but that is not the sum total of classified information.

In any event, Trump acknowledged disclosures when he said he could disclose what he wanted. Of course, he's a serial liar, so maybe we should treat whatever he says as "fake news."

Paid foreign

Paid foreign agents---Manafort, Flynn

http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/04/12/another-former-trump-campaign-me...

Voter suppression ?

https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/kris-kobach-king-voter-suppressio...

There, saved you a second or two and conquered the google monster for you.

"Be Afraid, Very Afraid."

You linked a blog article whose title includes ""Be Afraid, Very Afraid."?

You are part of the problem, sharing articles which prey on the fearful. Click bait, fake news; keep it going.

Too bad we did not continue with the Michigan recount, we might have learned how some (37%) of Detroit precincts counted more votes than voters.

http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2016/12/12/records-many-v...

Them There Detroit Voters

It's not good when your triumphant talking point is debunked on Snopes:

The discrepancy did not involve Detroit's recording more votes than registered voters, but rather precinct poll workers miscounting the number of people who voted.

http://www.snopes.com/more-votes-than-voters-in-detroit/

I had hoped that McMaster was an adult in the room.

Turns out McMaster must have taken that loyalty oath Trump was demanding instead of remaining independent.

By the way, McMaster didn't deny that Trump divulged secrets, he denied that Trump divulged the source of those secrets. The problem is McMasters now has less credibility than Trump because McMaster's should know better. One reason for keeping secrets is that simply revealing a secret can tell enemies how you collect secrets. In a jigsaw puzzle of intelligence where you don't know how many or what pieces your opponent has, one slip can fill in a blank. And by the way, people risk their lives to collect these puzzle pieces.

What Trump and McMaster basically just told the world, and all of our own intelligence people, is that they can't be trusted to handle secrets people risk their lives to obtain. The predictable results is that the well of secrets will dry up pretty quickly until that trust is restored.

Why the Sudden Concern for Secrets and for Israel?

The Obama administration had several notable public releases of top secret classified information by people without the authority.

In 2011, Leon Panetta revealed the identity of Seal Team 6 as the team that killed bin Laden; same year, Joe Biden revealed the identity of Seal Team 6 members. In 2010, Gen. James Cartwright, leaked to reporters classified information about cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In May 2013, the Obama Pentagon leaked that Israel attacked the Damascus airport to stop a shipment of weapons. Obama officials apologized for that one, since it endangered Americans. This is not an exhaustive accounting of Obama administration security breaches. Little mention of these by the media and a curious lack of outrage.

Unless your defending Obama era disclosures

You're not making a valid point. The fact that other people have done something Trump shouldn't have done doesn't justify Trumps actions. It's a basic principle of ethics, morality, and logic, that the bad actions of one person or group cannot sanction the bad actions of another person or group.

It's always ironic when Republican's who are supposed to be the champions of personal responsibility try to dodge personal responsibility by point to stuff other people have done. Even if I concede hypocrisy, my hypocrisy cannot justify yours. Anyone who takes personal responsibility seriously seeks to resolve their own faults and hypocrisy's, not point to those belonging to someone else.

The Difference is Authority

The President has the authority to declassify. The samples of Obama era security breaches were made by people without authority to declassify. Those yammering about Trump that said nothing of the previous administration's security missteps do so for completely partisan purposes.

It is always ironic when Democrats hold Republicans to a standard far higher than they hold themselves.

Well...

If Obama era disclosure are irrelevant why do you bring them up? If Obama era disclosures can't be compared to Trump's because Trump has authority and they didn't, why are you comparing them?

The fact that someone has some authority to do something doesn't make them infallible, nor does it mean everything they do is beyond criticism or a good thing to have done. What you have here is a situation where Trump used his authority to damage US credibility and intelligence operations. Authority may legitimate, but that doesn't mean it can't be misused.

Again, people who take things like personal responsibility seriously don't hide behind technicalities, they actually consider whether or not what they're doing is right or wrong, harmful or helpful, etc. Basic basic intelligence and ethical reasoning tells us that just because you can do some thing, doesn't mean you should do that thing. It's the difference between competent and incompetent, or responsible and irresponsible.

Not irrelevant = Relevant

Obama era classified information disclosures are relevant in that they provide a backdrop against which to judge current criticisms regarding the security of Israel and the safeguarding of classified information in general. Just as the cavalier conduct of Hillary Clinton regarding classified information provides a relevant standard, the current genned up security concerns just add more depth to the laugh track.

Absurd

This amounts to saying Trump should get a pass for whatever high crimes and/or misdemeanors he commits in office if you can find examples of things done by past Presidents that you regard as equivalent that were not punished.

It doesn't work that way. Every person, not just a President, but every person, is supposed to be judged on his or her own conduct. It's what they did, not what someone else may have done.The "cavalier conduct" of Hillary Clinton is on her head. It does not excuse Donald Trump's conduct. "Look at what HE did" doesn't work as a defense on the playground, and it certainly should not work in the world of so-called adults in Washington. Feel free to regard it as yet another example of liberal bias, if you like, but I would be keen to know the ethical theory that excuses bad deeds because someone else blah blah blah.

And judging "current criticisms" is equally pointless, except as a laughably transparent attempt at deflection.

The Absurdity

The absurdity of this lies in the fact that Trumps accusers were silent when more egregious acts were committed by people that they supported. I am merely peeling back the thin and cheesy veneer on what are clearly partisan attacks. Where was the great care for secrets and for the security of Israel during the Obama administration? It hadn't yet hatched because it had no utility.

The Absurdity

The absurdity of this lies in the fact that Trump accusers were silent while more egregious acts were committed they supported. I am merely peeling back the thin and cheesy veneer on what are clearly partisan attacks. Where was the great concern for secret information and the security of Israel during the Obama administration? It hadn't yet hatched because it had yet no utility.

No comparison. Hillary

No comparison. Hillary Clinton never revealed or "leaked" or had hacked by outsiders any classified material when she used a private email server as Secretary of State. Therefore she did not commit any crime with her email server (c.f., FBI Director James Comey, July 2016).

Any information in her emails that was deemed "classified" was so labelled years after the fact, and was not classified when she received or sent it.

She was "cavalier" in her assumption that she could clearly distinguish classified from non-classified materials, which she did. (Trump can't do that.) It's her confidence in her own discretion that drives misogynists up the wall. She kept secrets better than Gen. David Petraeus, who shared everything with his mistress, yet did not go to jail for it.

But it's Trump who revealed highly classified stuff to our major foreign enemies, without consulting anyone about the consequences or even if he should do it. A President CAN reveal any secret he wants to. Whether he SHOULD reveal it is another matter, requiring qualities of character and preparation for the job that Trump does not have.

The Truth

Executive Summary: Over 100 emails contained classified information, classified at the time sent and received, some of them Top Secret.

From the FBI website

Excerpts:

"From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification. Separate from those, about 2,000 additional e-mails were “up-classified” to make them Confidential; the information in those had not been classified at the time the e-mails were sent."

"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.

For example, seven e-mail chains concern matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level when they were sent and received. These chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending e-mails about those matters and receiving e-mails from others about the same matters. There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation."

"We also assess that Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent. She also used her personal e-mail extensively while outside the United States, including sending and receiving work-related e-mails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries. Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account."

Read it from the source: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/statement-by-fbi-direct...

Are You Chasing the Right Rabbit?

Will this one finally be the one that takes down that rascally President Trump?

Spoiler alert - It won't be Russia.

What I see in all of the anti-Trump protests and rhetoric is a tremendous sense of guilt. There may be more anti-Trump protesters than Hillary voters; some of them, for various reasons, just didn't show up and cast a vote. Now they feel compelled to resist. Underlying this urge to resist is a tremendous sense of guilt, knowing that they help elect a President Trump by backing a deeply flawed candidate, and by standing down when the DNC colluded against Bernie Sanders. By backing HER, they were backing Trump.

That popular vote argument, non-existent during the campaign, is getting awfully threadbare. Winning the popular vote by 2.5 million votes but losing the electoral vote by a wide margin is emblematic of a poorly planned and executed campaign. Not going to Wisconsin once during the general campaign, but expecting to capture their votes was delusional. The blue paint is not permanent; it needs to be earned each time. Donald Trump was defeatable, but not by her and not by that campaign. All of this was clearly visible by anyone willing to give it a critical look.

When someone deploys such methods...

As diversion, or obfuscation, such as pointing to someone else i.e "someone else did something" or "someone else did something worse", they're telling us they have no functioning concept of integrity. You can always find someone else who did something, we have for instance more than one bank robber and rapist among us, but that doesn't absolve anyone else who commits rape or robs a bank.

Arguing details of any kind with someone who's rational and moral compass is that severely damaged is typically a waste of time at best.

This is not a high school debate class. The people who play these debate games haven't had their position assigned to them, they CHOSE their positions of their own accord, and that tell us important things about their character and their integrity.

Our problem is figuring out how move the ball down-field. We have to find a balance between revealing dishonesty and false information and getting trapped in circular echo chambers pretending to be "arguments".

I think we may at a tipping point of sorts. There was some value to engaging conservative hacks for a while because for decades the media granted them credibility they never deserved. Point by point refutation helped break that credibility down to it's foundation. The question is whether or not we can move on to the next battle, and how to make the transition?