Of Special Prosecutors and Senate Investigations

There are good reasons to compare the so called President’s Russian connection problem to Watergate, the Uber political conspiracy in the United States. Both involve megalomaniacal, Republican Presidents who exhibit clear signs of significant mental illness. There are important differences. Richard Nixon, the Republican President who gave us Watergate, made it through his first term in office mostly without scandal. It is a sign of his megalomania and paranoia that he went to illegal lengths to win reelection in 1972 despite the fact that he would likely have won easily that year with an entirely legal campaign operation.

This points to another important difference. There are already strong suspicions that at least some of the players in the Russiagate scandal have committed crimes. The FBI is investigating Michael Flynn, who holds the distinction of serving as national security advisor for the shortest time of anyone to occupy the post, for possibly having violated the Logan Act by discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia before Trump took office as President. Some observers believe that Attorney General Jefferson Sessions lied during his confirmation hearings.

But these remain mere allegations. Watergate began with an action by several men working on behalf of the President that clearly constituted a crime. They broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee specifically in aid of Nixon’s reelection campaign. The Watergate burglars got arrested and underwent prosecution for their crimes, which is how the conspiracy began to unravel. Shortly before his sentencing, one of the burglars told the judge he had lied during court proceedings and was under pressure to conceal the truth. The judge encouraged him to cooperate with the Senate committee that would soon start to investigate the entire imbroglio.

A Nixon aide revealed the recording system in the Oval Office during testimony before the Senate Committee. The contents of the tapes would become the center of the controversy, with Nixon claiming “executive privilege” as his excuse for not turning the tapes over to the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who demanded that Nixon surrender them. Rather than do so, Nixon secured the firing of the special prosecutor in the notorious “Saturday night massacre,” in which the Attorney General and his chief deputy resigned rather than fire Cox, leaving it to Robert Bork, then solicitor general, to carry out the firing.

Soon after, the House Judiciary Committee began its own Watergate investigation. This was a major development because the Constitution explicitly gives to the House “the sole power of impeachment.”

The Senate has begun to investigate contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Whether Russiagate will play out as Watergate did, with the Senate committee uncovering key information that leads to a House committee voting out articles of impeachment that in turn prompt the President to resign rather than face trial in the Senate, remains to be seen. The House already had a committee investigating the Trump campaign’s Russian connections, sort of. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee recently recused himself from that body’s investigation of the matter because he learned that U.S. agencies had collected information about Trump campaign personnel as part of their routing monitoring of communications by foreign agents, then immediately took the information to the so called President, thus demonstrating that he is far too sympathetic to Trump and his interests to oversee any investigation into the matter in any credible way.

This is broadly similar to Watergate in the sense that the President’s own allies contributed mightily to the unraveling of the conspiracy, but in Watergate, the unraveling occurred because of the choices of Nixon’s allies to cooperate with the investigation. In Trump’s case, his allies keep making very public mistakes that exacerbate existing suspicions.

Everyone is free to draw her/his own conclusions. As of now, we have no proof of any illegal or grossly unethical conduct on the part of the Donald, at least not with respect to the Russian contact issue. So far, his entire presidency has been nothing but a cesspool of unethical conduct in many other ways. But the similarities to Watergate as of now look greater than the differences. Nixon’s decision to resign rather than face trial in the Senate was a major moment of political realism on his part. So far, we have no evidence to suggest that the Donald is capable of political realism at all, so removing him may require a full trial in the Senate, which must find him guilty by a two thirds majority.

Time will tell.

Cross posted to The Constitution Doctor.

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