I have to admit I “wallowed in Watergate,” back in the day — actually 45 years ago. However, while we’re wallowing, I think we need to be aware of a point made by Elizabeth Drew this evening on MSNBC — Watergate was about more than the burglary of the Watergate office building and the Democratic Headquarters. Correct; it was about the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, the unleashing of IRS audits on people listed as Nixon enemies, and other machinations; it was about a man who knew all the levers of power and how to use and abuse them to control the investigation swirling around him. The same cannot be said of Donald J. Trump.
Before drawing too many comparisons to Watergate, perhaps it would be a good idea to focus on the contrasts.
Richard Nixon’s downfall revolved, or devolved, around the abuse of power by a man who know where the levers were located, and how to maintain his own power by manipulating them. The present occupant of the White House gives every appearance of understanding that he has power, but hasn’t the expertise — nor, perhaps, the inquisitiveness — to understand that those levers have to be pushed and pulled with caution and a comprehension of possible consequences.
One element that did not enter into the Watergate Inquiry was a foreign adversary, and it would be a profound mistake to focus on narrow questions while paying less attention than necessary to this factor. There are large questions to answer before we get down to brass tacks and 12.5 gauge nails like (1) Are the elements of collusion present? Or, (2) Are the elements of obstruction of justice satisfied. Let’s remove these from view for a little while, and ask some other, more general, questions.
Have we elected a President who is so compromised by a foreign adversary that his policies are shaded toward addressing the interests of the adversary at the expense of US interests?
At worst, we might have a chief executive who is conscious of his compromised position and willingly initiates policies and actions which he intends to be in the interest of a foreign adversary. On another hand, do we have an unconscious tool whose desire to ingratiate himself with the adversary colors his actions, pronouncements, and policies. These aren’t necessarily legal questions which lawyers and former counselors can answer, except as a function of their investigations. Thus, the first question which needs an answer becomes: Is the President compromised? If so, then how did he come to be in this position?
We have some indications, not yet rising to the level of hard evidence, that the chief executive is in a compromised position. Item: The intensity of his desire to stop any investigation of Michael Flynn. Item: The Steele Dossier, much of which can be substantiated, some of which has not be corroborated. Item: The deletion of the Article 5 commentary and emphasis at the NATO meeting. Item: The reluctance to ascribe the election tampering to the Russians, in the face of evidence from 17 intelligence sources and agencies. Item: The ephemeral proposal to return Russian properties once use for intelligence gathering. Item: The repeated refrain that it would be a good thing to have better “relations” with the Russians. Item: The changes made to the Republican Platform in 2016 to reflect a more pro-Russian position on our relations with Ukraine. No doubt there are more items which could be added to this list.
If the president is in a compromised position, one that is related to policies and practices that abet the interests of the Russians, then how should we characterize this? Are we to identify financial interests as the driving force? Are there philosophical drivers, such as a predilection for authoritarian rule? Again, these aren’t legal questions; they are political, or financial, perhaps psychological — maybe a toxic mixture of these and others? These questions, like the general ones raised during the Watergate Investigation, will eventually be answered. Patience is required.
Now, we can return to the topic of Russian assaults on our electoral system.
Were the assaults on our electoral institutions — from state registration databases to social media fake news and feeds — the product of outright collusion between individuals involved in the Trump campaign, the product of collusion of convenience between individuals whose tacit acceptance of the meddling was taken as permission, or was all the effort on the part of the Russian agents seeking to derive an outcome to their liking?
Let’s recall that the underlying issue of obstruction of justice is connected to the answer to the questions listed above. Is the “target of the investigation” alleged to be guilty of conscious and voluntary actions to obstruct investigations into the nature and scope of the collusion?
Before getting into these weeds — Do we know why the Russians hacked into our election institutions and processes? Do we know the full extent of their efforts? Do we know how they were able to generate social media messages and deliver them to targeted audiences? Do we know how they know the best way to “weaponize” their results. There are some answers available, some partial explications at hand, and some speculation associated with these inquiries.
In short, let’s remember that this investigation is in its earliest stages. We should also remember that not all investigative agencies began their work at once. Some investigations have been ongoing (Manafort/Ukraine), some were launched during the transition, others are newly organized.
The bottom line — not all the answers will be immediate, not all the answers will be palatable, not all the answers will be evidence of crimes. However, the one point of comparison with Watergate that’s rather glaring is that those answers will be complex, interrelated, and probably not satisfactory to those who demand clear, black and white, totally dichotomous responses. Given that we are discussing an assault on the very foundations of our democracy we need to get the best answers, not merely the most self satisfying ones. History will write the epilogue. We need to provide the informative chapters.