Watergate Redux

By

Leonard Zwelling

For those of us who remember June 17, 1972 as a day when we awoke to news of a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in northwest Washington, D.C., the last few months has seemed like vuja de.

A popular (sort of) president (remember Nixon went on to a landslide victory in November of the year of the Watergate break-in), seemed impregnable. His support was predominantly from middle America and the wealthy. He had promised to end an unpopular war, but had not. And talk about any wrongdoing on the part of the occupant of the Oval Office on election day was just that—talk.

By the following summer, legal scholars and constitutional lawyers were predicting that Richard Nixon would not make it to the end of his current term in office. Most of us still laughed and scoffed at the thought of Nixon quitting or being impeached, but the scholars were right and Nixon fell when Congress finally stepped up and did its job and unveiled the evil of which Nixon was the center.

As Ronald Reagan might say: “Here we go again.”

Just like in Watergate, we have a special prosecutor looking into the allegations of illegal activity made against a sitting president. Just as in Watergate, those further down the White House food chain are being indicted or actually pleading guilty. The big difference between then and now is the internet and the speed at which communications are being generated for the consumption of the American people.

On January 30, while President Trump was giving the State of the Union message, I was attending a lecture, the first in this year’s series sponsored by the town of Rancho Mirage, California. The site was the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs and the speaker was former supreme NATO commander and presidential candidate Wesley Clark.

During his prepared remarks, General Clark mentioned the need to allow Robert Mueller’s investigation to finish before any conclusions were drawn. This got an ovation from a very well-heeled crowd, many of whom probably voted for Trump and many of whom still support him given the positive effects of the Tax Bill on their tax bill and the Trump Wall Street rally on their stock income (until recently, oh well).

I am not convinced that should Mr. Mueller unearth true crimes by the Trump White House or the president himself, his supporters would desert him. Many of his backers view him as the anti-politician who still will shake up DC. The same was true in 1974. To the bitter end there were people in the Congress and all over the country who thought that Nixon was just being another politician and that the Democrats and that liberal Washington Post just had it out for their guy. Fortunately, Nixon did not have mural dyslexia and could read the handwriting on the wall. He resigned and Gerald Ford pardoned him and if you want to see what happened next, see the film Frost/Nixon.

Richard Nixon never understood that being president does not put you above the law. He said as much during the David Frost interviews.

Donald Trump, I think, did not understand the limits of his ability to persuade or cajole people into fulfilling his will, whether that is to let Michael Flynn go free or try to rewrite the history of a meeting in Trump Tower. I really think that Trump thought that this was just how business was done in Washington—just as he had done it in New York. But a president is under more constraints than a real estate investor and Trump may have colored outside the lines when it came to obstructing justice.

The real fun starts if Mueller comes to that conclusion before November 2018 when the current Congress is still in session. Will the Republicans in the House impeach this president? I doubt it. And even if they did, would two-thirds of the Senate convict him. Doubtful. Would Trump resign? Only if his approval ratings drop into the low 20s which I find incredible.

Trump may escape conviction as did Bill Clinton before him. It’s shameful, but since politics is a blood sport, we should not be surprised that someone sheds some blood, but survives.

We are heading toward a constitutional crisis because Congress has been unwilling to fully investigate the Russia effects on our election and the possible involvement of the Trump campaign with this behavior by one of our adversaries. Don’t be surprised if the FBI requests the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the release of the Nunes memo, which was purported to reveal confidential information to the American public. I read it. I missed that part.

Congress is dysfunctional and much of the executive branch may be tainted with scandal and rife with attempts to obstruct justice and discredit the FBI. If it takes the judicial branch to get us on track, it won’t be the first time. After all, it was the Supreme Court that allowed the release of the Watergate tapes.

Leonard Zwelling