On 17 June 1972, Frank Wills, a watchman, discovered by chance a piece of tape attached to a basement door in the Watergate complex. Wills’ discovery led to the arrest of five men who had forced their way into the Democratic National Committee’s offices.
These men were up to no good. They had gone beyond anything reasonable to steal inside information from the Democratic Party to secure Nixon’s re-election and a Republican majority in Congress. Their “theft” was an act of stupidity.
A few months later, Richard Nixon would be re-elected with one of the biggest ever landslide victories in any American election. Nixon defeated democratic contender George McGovern, with 520 electoral votes, against McGovern’s 1 plus DC.
Nixon also managed an abysmal gap in the popular vote with 47 million against 29 million, a margin of 23.2 per cent. He was set for a great, enjoyable and smooth presidency.
Nixon was an amazing strategist, a political genius who had studied law at the prestigious Duke University Law School. But he was also distant, coldblooded, utilitarian by nature and too ambitious. He had an attitude, and he was not forgiven.
NIXON FALLS FROM HIGH
Mark Couturier says, “the origins of Nixon’s demise can be traced to the dark recesses of his quirky nature.” His poor background and struggles to reach the top, “left a smouldering residue of hatred and resentment that manifested itself in ugly ways during his time in the Oval Office.
Also, “Nixon’s difficulty with interpersonal relationships added to this sense of insecurity, which – combined with his bitterness – made for a precarious situation. No doubt, these elements contributed to his belief that one had to be prepared to resort to ruthlessness in order to get ahead in politics.”
The Watergate burglary looked at first uneventful, a silly episode, but it had a tale. Like a jigsaw puzzle, one thing led to another; petty theft became grand corruption and political espionage, ultimately turning into the Watergate Scandal.
As Watergate gathered momentum, Nixon asked the Central Intelligence Agency to direct the FBI to stop investigations. The FBI withdrew, but one man, one insider, kept leaking. He was called “Deep Throat”.
Nobody knew who this “Deep Throat” was. He had given key information and leads to the Washington Post reporters who investigated the matter, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
More than 30 years later, on 31 May 2005, Vanity Fair magazine revealed that Mark Felt, the former FBI associate director, was Deep Throat. For the first time since 1972, Felt admitted that he was “the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”
Watergate was immortalised in the 1974 bookAll the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two main journalists who uncovered the scandal.
Two years later, this book was popularised by the 1976 four-Academy-Award-winning filmAll the President’s Men directed by Alan J. Pakula, and starred by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
This unfurling drama came to an end after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, and the subsequent presidential pardon granted by Gerald Ford, his successor. But stories sometimes resurrect, they repeat themselves.
NIXON’S WATERGATE AND TRUMP’S RUSSIA
There are scary parallels between Nixon’s Watergate and Trump’s Russian tale. Just a few days ago, Senator John McCain speaking at an International Republican Institute dinner about President Trump and the FBI controversy, said “We’ve seen this movie before. It’s reaching Watergate size and scale. This is not good for the country”.
McCain’s concern is not new. The press has not forgotten Trump’s victory, and his conscious disdain for the mainstream media. Anything Trump says or does not say, imagines or gestures, is closely, almost cruelly, scrutinised and Trump seems to like it.
He actually goes the extra mile to add wood to the fire and his tweets likely make sensible advisors in the White House hold their breath. Three days ago, Trump tweeted, “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community…”
All the ingredients for a Watergate-like episode are already in the kitchen, and Trump is naively mixing them. We have a rebellious, unforgiving press, a proud, manipulating president, disenchanted independent institutions, rolling heads for unclear motives and information leakage. The meal will be ready in no time and Trump will be cooked.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey following a recommendation by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.
Rosenstein’s report brings up key and important issues that cast serious doubts on Comey’s fitness for the job. First was Comey’s imprudence in divulging privileged information:
The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.
Rosenstein cites Jamie Gorelick, Deputy Attorney General under President Clinton, and Larry Thompson, Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush, to opine that the Director had “chosen personally to restrike the balance between transparency and fairness, departing from the department’s traditions.”
'NEARLY UNIVERSAL JUDGEMENT'
Comey did so like a “real-time, raw-take transparency taken to its illogical limit, a kind of reality TV of federal criminal investigation, which is antithetical to the interests of justice.” It was "an error in judgement", violating long-standing Justice Department policies and traditions, and this negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI.
Second, Comey’s pride and stubbornness. Rosenstein says that Comey:
refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions … I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.
Third, mismatched goals. According to Rosenstein:
But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision.
WHO SAID RUSSIA?
Rosenstein never mentioned Russia in his report. So, why did Trump mention it in the dismissal letter? This could paint the sacking as a means to slow down the investigation into the Russian collusion. For Trump it is just envy. He told NBC news, “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
These comments contradict White House claims that it was the Hillary Clinton investigation and not the Russian investigation that got Comey fired. As if this was not enough, on 12 May 2017, Trump tweeted: “James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
American politics is ruthless and unforgiving and a mistake could mean death or ejection. For Garfield, Lincoln and Kennedy it was death. For Nixon, it was ejection.
Donald Trump is face to face with the same explosive mixture that destroyed Nixon’s brilliant career; an arrogant attitude and too many enemies eager to see you fall.
It may already be too late, but Trump should read Nixon’s script. Maybe he should read Nixon’s farewell address,
“Greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi