Three Reasons Trump-Russia Hasn't Turned Into Watergate
Why haven’t efforts to impeach President Trump gained Watergate-style momentum? The lack of energy has created a sense of bafflement and disappointment among some of the president’s most determined adversaries. But there are some simple reasons for it. Here are three:
1. The facts are different. In Watergate, the underlying crime was a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, perpetrated by burglars paid by President Nixon’s re-election campaign. The scandal proceeded from there. In Trump-Russia, the underlying crime was the hacking of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails — a crime committed by Russians in Russia. Special counsel Robert Mueller, who indicted a number of Russians and Russian entities for their actions, spent two years trying to find conspiracy or coordination between the Russians and the Trump campaign. He failed.
That single fact has shaped every other aspect of the Trump-Russia affair. In Watergate, the cover-up flowed from Nixon’s desire to conceal his campaign’s involvement in the break-in and other political dark acts. It formed the bulk of the obstruction of justice case against Nixon, which in turn served as the basis for articles of impeachment.
In Trump-Russia, Mueller did not charge, although he clearly suggested, that Trump obstructed the investigation of an event — conspiracy/coordination — that did not happen. That meant the simplest, most plausible motive for obstruction — Trump, knowing he was guilty, tried to cover up his campaign’s conspiracy with Russia — was off the table. Given that, Mueller’s obstruction case veered all over the map. He conceded that Trump had many motives to act as he did — anger at being wrongly accused, concern over his ability to govern, a desire to defend the legitimacy of his election — and that none of them involved covering up conspiracy or coordination with Russia.
That’s a very different set of facts from Watergate. Consider the single most explosive episode of Watergate — the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Trump’s opponents say his desire to fire Mueller was Nixonesque. But try to imagine the Saturday Night Massacre with a Trumpian set of facts: What if Nixon told his White House counsel to tell the attorney general to fire Cox, but the counsel ignored the order? Nixon called again, and the counsel ignored him again. Nixon then let the matter drop, and Cox completed his investigation. No Saturday Night Massacre. That alone shows there is simply no comparison between Watergate and Trump-Russia.
2. The press is different. Just as the facts of Trump-Russia are quite unlike Watergate, so the media environment of 2019 is quite unlike what existed in 1974. Back then, there were three 30-minute broadcast network newscasts: CBS, NBC and ABC. There were two big newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and TV network executives sat down each day, within a few blocks of each other in Manhattan, to produce newscasts that basically illustrated the papers’ latest stories. There was no internet, no cable news, no podcasts, no social media and no talk radio. Nixon, even if he had had strong defenses, faced a solid wall of media opposition.
Today, the situation is much, much different — and infinitely better. There is far more diversity of opinion in the media writ large, and, importantly, popular access to primary sources. That troubles some media figures who miss the old days of news monopoly.
“During the Watergate era … there were three networks,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote recently. “Now, cable news, talk radio, thousands of websites and social media create a polluted firehose-blast of information mixed with disinformation.
"Back then, what was said on those three networks … was largely believed,” Sullivan added. “Much more than now, there was a shared set of facts.”
But it was a limited set of facts — just the ones selected by those network producers in Manhattan. Today’s media diversity, in terms of the Trump-Russia affair, means more facts see the light. And people inclined to support the president, or just be skeptical of the government’s investigative targeting of the Trump campaign, have a way to make their case beyond what anyone had 40-plus years ago.
3. Congress is different. Differences in the facts of the cases and differences in the media’s ability to report those facts have had a profound effect on lawmakers. They’re better informed, if they want to be, and can make a better defense of the president of their party. And having a significant number of constituents supporting the president makes representatives more likely to support him, too. (Unlike today, in 1974 opposition party Democrats controlled all of Congress, with 243 seats in the House and 56 in the Senate.)
So this is a new world. It is perhaps not surprising to hear Democrats wish they could somehow turn today’s Trump-Russia affair into yesterday’s Watergate. If they could just hold televised hearings, they say, that could capture the nation’s attention and give Trump-Russia a Watergate-like urgency. Americans would turn against the president by the millions.
Others believe they just need time. It took Watergate years to grow big enough to oust Nixon, they say. But look at the numbers. The break-in was in June 1972, and Nixon resigned in August 1974 — a period of two years and two months. In Trump-Russia, the FBI began its investigation nearly three years ago, in July 2016. The Senate began investigating in January 2017. And Mueller took office in May 2017. It’s been a long time.
Trump-Russia could go longer still, and it would not change the basic facts of the case. It is simply a different case in a different world. Try as they might, the president’s opponents can’t make it 1974 again.
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