On Saturday morning, Americans woke up to a series of tweets from President Trump defending himself against the latest revelations about contacts between his campaign staff and Russia. Although we are becoming accustomed to these counter attacks, one of these tweets stood out as particularly peculiar. Citing no evidence, the president accused Barack Obama of a plot to wiretap Trump Tower, going so far as to evoke the terms “Nixon” and “Watergate.”
That the president himself would dredge up these memories is especially odd given that in the past few months, citizens of a certain age (whose memories are still intact), have been quietly discussing and remembering the Watergate scandal that unfolded between 1972 and 1974 and culminated with President Richard Nixon resigning from office just ahead of an impeachment vote. Those who weren’t born yet, were children, or were just not paying attention back then, have taken to Googling Watergate in record numbers. These numbers peaked on Saturday morning as the President reminded everyone to look up exactly what happened back then.
So perhaps a history lesson is in order?
Watergate began with a small, insignificant burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex on June 17, 1972.
In November, Nixon won re-election in a landslide, allowing him to dismiss the incident as a “bizarre circumstance.” His press secretary called it a “third-rate burglary,” which is what it seemed. After all, Nixon’s victory was never really in doubt, as the Democratic party was in the middle of a rather spectacular civil war. So why go to the trouble of breaking into their headquarters when they were crumbling from within? There seemed to be no motive and as we all know, crimes need a motive.
But nonetheless, as Nixon began his second term “the so-called Watergate affair”—as Nixon referred to it—would not go away. In the words of the late R.W. “Johnny” Apple of the New York Times, “One revelation piled on another. The White House responses swung erratically from defense of the president’s aides to their resignations. […] The White House clung to its assertions that no members of the state had been involved.”
People started talking,—especially a former top FBI official known only as “Deep Throat” (so named after the title of a popular pornographic movie of the time). It took 22 years for the public to learn the identity of Deep Throat: Mark Felt, who met Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in 1970 and was Deputy Director of the FBI at the time of the Watergate burglary. He was identified in a 2005 article in Vanity Fair magazine and died in 2008.
Over the 26 months between the break-in and Nixon’s departure from office, his vice president, his attorney general and his top White House staffers were forced to resign in disgrace. Nixon’s nominee for director of the FBI stepped aside after it was discovered that he had destroyed evidence related to Watergate. A group called the “plumbers” dedicated to taking revenge on Nixon’s enemies was unearthed, putting the Watergate burglary into context of a broader strategy.
The most explosive moment in those two years came to be known as “The Saturday Night Massacre.” Nixon had a taping system in the oval office that recorded his conversations. The special prosecutor appointed to investigate Watergate sought a subpoena to go after the tapes and won. Nixon then fired him, and accepted the resignations of both the attorney general and deputy attorney general. In one night, Nixon dismantled the leadership of the investigation against him.
But in the end, the tapes revealed what many had slowly come to suspect. Nixon knew about—and had directed—the cover up from the beginning. He was on tape discussing it. The tape was the final straw that came to be known as “the smoking gun.” The president had abused the power of his office. With his approval ratings in the 20s, he resigned from office just ahead of a formal vote of impeachment. The Washington truism was born: it’s not the crime that gets you—it’s the cover-up.
This story hangs heavily over the Trump administration. Suddenly there are echoes of Watergate everywhere. On Sunday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said “I’m not going to be party to a witch hunt but I’m not going to be party to a cover up.”
But for those who would rush to judgement there are a few caveats. It took 26 months for Watergate to go from a “third rate burglary” to an impeachable offense. Just because there’s smoke doesn’t always mean there’s fire—the series of contacts between Trump surrogates and Russians may have all been innocent, even if they were ill-advised.
Founding Director - Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
Today’s break-ins happen electronically—the Democratic National Committee was hacked, not burglarized. If there turns out to be a “smoking gun” it too will probably be electronic, and verifying its source could be a challenge.
If the legal setbacks begin to mount up, all sorts of unrelated stuff will fall out. For instance, just as Americans were filing taxes in 1974 they found out that Nixon had taken a questionable deduction on his own tax return and was forced to pay back taxes. The political and the legal go hand-in-hand. Investigations inevitably distract and weaken a presidency. The erosion of public support fuels and emboldens the legal strategies and vice versa.
No one wishes for a president to be impeached but the short marriage of Donald Trump with the American people seems to have skipped the traditional presidential honeymoon and headed straight to divorce court. And much of this can be attributed to his own paranoia and tendency to attack without cause. This 1974 description of Nixon by the New York Times reporter Alden Whitman could be written about Donald Trump today “ …he was a loner, certain of the loyalty of very few men…he could be vindictive against those he saw as his special enemies.”
Author’s Note: There are many many books on Watergate – the most famous, which has also been made into a movie is All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. But just follow this link and the interested reader can find many more.
 “A Tragedy in Three Acts,” by R.W. Apple Jr., originally published in The New York Times and quoted in The End of a Presidency, (New York, Bantam Books, 1974)