Virtually every day now we have former Watergate prosecutors and historians weighing in on the parallels between that seminal scandal and the Russia investigation, and for good reason. President Trump, like Richard Nixon before him, is suspected of obstructing justice. With Nixon, the ultimate downfall came from the revelation that he had taped conversations in the Oval Office that would back up the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean that he had personally ordered a cover-up.
With Trump it’s much more straightforward. He has admitted to obstruction of justice on national television and has been obviously engaged in a cover-up on his public Twitter feed. What they have in common is hubris and an inordinate amount of faith that they are too clever to ever be caught.
In the course of the Watergate investigations and because of superb journalism it was also revealed that Nixon ran the presidency like a personal fiefdom, from which to exact revenge on his enemies and reward his henchmen. From what we’ve seen so far, Trump is doing the same thing. He’s just doing it out in the open. So it makes good sense to examine the legal precedents and look for parallels as we try to understand where this is going.
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But if we are to understand the nature of the scandal and how the Republicans are dealing with it, we don’t have to go back 44 years to do it. The Whitewater scandals are much more recent and provide a better window into the current behavior of the Republican Party.
When you see Republicans on Fox and on the floor of the Congress accusing prosecutors on Mueller’s team of being partisan hacks and the media of being in the tank for the opposition it’s because ever since Bill Clinton scandal investigations have become political weapons, at least for the right.
Recall the famous words of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who foolishly admitted it in public:
Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.
Benghazi was child’s play compared to Whitewater, the catch-all name for the 1990s Clinton scandals.
Right-wing operatives had been pushing a baroque Arkansas tale of a failed land deal and Bill Clinton’s relationship with a partner in a failed ’80s savings and loan since the 1992 presidential campaign and various strands of investigation were launched almost immediately after Clinton took office in 1993.
From the firing of people in the White House travel office, which incensed their friends in the press corps, to accusations that someone in the White House had inappropriately looked at FBI files to a ghoulish obsession with the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, the scandal-mongering was relentless.
By January 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno had no choice but to appoint a special prosecutor, Robert Fiske, a Republican former U.S. attorney. That summer the House and Senate Banking committees called 29 Clinton administration officials to testify at public hearings, none of whom were ever found guilty of any wrongdoing. And that was just the beginning.
When Fiske ultimately found that nothing criminal had happened, a partisan panel of judges refused to reappoint him under the independent counsel statute and named Judge Ken Starr to succeed him. He started all over again with a multi-pronged investigation going back years from Washington to Little Rock. Meanwhile there were activist lawyers (including one George Conway, future husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne) trolling for clients to sue the president for sexual harassment, and a nonstop media campaign to hammer away at all of this. There were campaign finance scandals and Buddhist nun scandals and Chinese donor scandals and billing records scandals none of which ultimately implicated Bill or Hillary Clinton in anything illegal but left a trail of carnage in their wake.
Throughout, Republicans in Congress were relentless in their pursuit. (If the recent Peter Strzok hearing shocked you, you didn’t watch any of the dozens of Whitewater hearings.) Starr’s office leaked like a sieve, making it clear that his mission had strayed far beyond normal law enforcement into being a political operation intended to bring down the president. The media ate it all up like little baby birds with their beaks open, eager to take whatever was fed to them. The atmosphere was febrile and intense.
Starr had finally decided to close up shop after years and years of chasing his tail had come up with no evidence of a crime. But that was when the Paula Jones civil suit opened the door for Linda Tripp to stab her friend Monica Lewinsky in the back, and right-wing lawyers set a perjury trap for the president. Clinton walked into it, lying under oath when asked if he’d engaged in an extramarital affair with Lewinsky. The rest is history.
Of course this kind of devious machination is what Republicans see happening with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign dealings with Russians. Why wouldn’t they perceive it that way? After all, that’s what they did. They assume everyone behaves as they do. Clinton was caught in a perjury trap so Mueller must be setting one for Trump. The press eagerly aided an abetted an independent counsel’s partisan political crusade so it must be doing the same thing now.
There are important differences. In the 1990s, a Democratic president was investigated by a team of Republican prosecutors and harassed by a ruthless GOP Congress. Robert Mueller and the leadership of the Justice Department are all Republicans and the Congress is behaving like a band of accomplices rather than performing oversight. But they’re portraying this as a partisan witch hunt anyway because, in their minds, that’s just how these things work.
We can certainly draw parallels between the Trump scandals and those of Nixon and Clinton. There are elements of both in their behaviors, from abuse of office to corruption and extramarital affairs. But neither of those presidents, as personally flawed as they may have been, were ever suspected of being dupes or agents of a foreign adversary in a plot to win their election, in a scandal so serious that one would think even the most partisan of players would sober up and take their duty seriously.
Instead, the Republicans are partying like it’s 1998 again, lost in the past, unable to adjust to new circumstances, assuming everyone is as vengeful and petty as they are. Now that I think about it, that describes the Republican Party of 2018 in more ways than one.