Watergate vs. Trump’s Russia scandal: How they stack up
For decades, Watergate has remained the apex of political scandal in the U.S., but in recent months the storm swirling around U.S. President Donald Trump, his team, and Russia has threatened to take the crown.
Experts, politicians, and journalists have speculated that the Russia situation could be Trump’s Watergate. Public interest has clearly been piqued — after Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey on May 9, Google searches for Watergate spiked more than 300 per cent.
At the root of the move to impeach Nixon (he resigned before a vote was taken) was obstruction — a word that’s come to haunt Trump amid the Russia investigation.
In short, the Watergate scandal involved a break-in and alleged spying on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by then-president Nixon and his colleagues, and a cover-up of that break-in.
Full details surrounding Trump and his team’s contact and potential collusion with Russia are still unfolding and has been the subject of an ongoing Senate intelligence committee investigation. At the committee hearings, much of the focus has been on Trump’s involvement in how the investigations are handled.
Here’s a look at how the two presidents’ situations compare:
The scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s fall from grace is named after the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., where a break-in occurred at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in June of 1972.
The five men arrested at the scene of the break-in were at the DNC offices to photograph documents and replace eavesdropping equipment that had been installed during a previous break-in. The burglars were found to have solid links to the White House and Nixon’s team.
The White House downplayed the burglary and went to great lengths to distance itself from the situation, which was clearly effective considering Nixon was re-elected as president that fall.
The intelligence community has determined that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in a number of ways, with the intent of helping the Republicans. The DNC was the target of a number of cyberattacks that have been linked to Russia.
Trump long refuted that Russia interfered in the election, suggesting it was simply an excuse used by Democrats for losing the election. He has also stated he has no personal or business connections to Russia. However, many in Trump’s inner circle and administration have strong ties to the country.
FBI investigation and special prosecutor
After Nixon’s second inauguration in early 1973, the FBI, journalists and a congressional investigation delved into White House ties to the scandal. Following a trial of the five burglars and their two bosses (some pleaded guilty, others convicted of conspiracy and burglary charges), the Senate voted 77-0 to create a special investigative committee to look into the Watergate scandal.
Journalists from the Washington Post helped to maintain public interest in the Watergate scandal with their groundbreaking coverage based on a source, dubbed “Deep Throat.” In 2005 the source was revealed to be W. Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official.
The scandal intensified over the next few months. In March, one of the burglars, James W. McCord, wrote a letter claiming the White House had pressured him and the other DNC burglars to plead guilty. A number of Nixon advisers and administration officials were convicted of charges related to Watergate.
In July, a White House aide told the Senate committee of the existence of Oval Office recordings from the days surrounding the break-in. That launched a battle over the release of the tapes, prompting Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox to subpoena the recordings; Nixon refused.
In October, Cox was fired on Nixon’s orders, in what has become known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Both the attorney general and deputy attorney general quit rather than follow the president’s orders.
The FBI has been looking into Russian ties to Donald Trump’s election campaign since 2016.
In February, Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser to Trump after it was revealed he misled Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia.
In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election following revelations he had twice talked with Moscow’s U.S. envoy during the presidential campaign.
WATCH: Putin asked about relationship to Michael Flynn
Things really heated up for Trump after he fired FBI director James Comey, who was leading the charge on the bureau’s investigation into the Russia links, on May 9. Following his firing, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to continue the Russia investigation.
A series of leaks following Comey’s firing alleged that Trump had asked Comey to pledge his loyalty and that he encouraged Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into Flynn.
A report from the New York Times published Friday, May 19 said that Trump told Russian officials he had fired “nut job” Comey to take some pressure off the Russia investigation.
Comey has since become the key figure in the speculation surrounding Trump’s actions.
In testimony to the committee on June 8, Comey said he felt he had been dismissed in order to undermine the Russia investigation. He accused the Trump administration of telling “lies, plain and simple,” for his firing, and said he’d been defamed. He also testified that Trump had asked Comey to make it abundantly clear that he was not personally under investigation in the Russia probe.
WATCH: Trump’s situation drawing comparisons to Watergate
Oval Office tapes
After initially refusing to release the tapes, Nixon later agreed to release some of the sought-after Oval Office recordings. One of the tapes had a near-20 minute gap where the recording had been erased, and the White House claimed that two tapes were missing.
The impeachment process then was initiated against Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal on Feb. 6, 1974.
In April, the White House handed over edited transcripts of the Oval Office tapes, but cited executive privilege and continued to refuse to release the recordings.
WATCH: Former U.S. intelligence head says Watergate ‘pales’ in comparison to Russia probe
Then in late July of 1974, the Supreme Court ruled the tapes must be handed over. The recordings revealed that Nixon tried to use the CIA to block an FBI investigation into the DNC burglary, with the excuse that it risked national security.
After long denying that he had been connected to the burglary, the tapes revealed the so-called “smoking gun”: a clear link between the president and the break-in.
Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. He did not admit any guilt. It’s widely believed Nixon would have been removed from office following the impeachment and a trial before the Senate, had he not resigned.
A month later Gerald Ford, who had stepped into the role of president, pardoned Nixon for any offenses he “committed or may have committed” while president.’
Comey said he wrote memos, which he confessed to leaking, following his interactions with Trump because he was worried the president would lie about the “nature” of their meetings.
Trump then hinted there are recordings of his interaction with Comey, including their conversation in the Oval Office, but it’s unclear if that is true.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said during his testimony, referring to his meetings with Trump.
Fellow Republicans have since pressed Trump to come clean about whether he has tapes of private conversations with Comey and provide them to Congress if he does — or possibly face a subpoena.
The impeachment process
The “smoking gun” for Trump comes down to whether he actively tried to impede the Russia investigation, which could prompt an obstruction of justice charge.
Impeachment is the constitutional procedure to remove a president. The House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment, and a majority would need to vote in favour of doing so. With the Republicans currently in control of the House, and in support of Trump, that’s unlikely to happen.
The U.S. Constitution outlines that a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” but it doesn’t describe what those are, said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, to Global News following Comey’s firing.
Perry said if Trump fired an FBI director in order to obstruct an ongoing investigation it could be considered an impeachable offense.
“If [Trump] is shutting down an attempt to investigate his activities or those of his administration and or his campaign it seems to me that would be obstruction of justice,” Perry said.
Two House Democrats have launched a long-shot bid to impeach Trump, but so far have not nabbed much support. On June 7 Reps. Al Green of Texas and Brad Sherman of California said they were drafting articles of impeachment.
They say Trump obstructed justice when he fired Comey, in an attempt to quell the Russia investigating.
— With files from Global News reporters Andrew Russell and Maham Abedi and the Associated Press
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