For almost three months after Trump’s election I had no idea what might happen next–a terrible feeling for a science-fiction writer to have, let alone a citizen. But it all seemed so unprecedented and so bizarre. I felt like we were in completely uncharted territory.
I’ve always relied on history to tell me what we might expect from the future, but what was this? Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth? The French Revolution? The RUSSIAN Revolution? Orwell’s 1984? Or none of the above? It didn’t seem to fit any of those categories.
But then, oh happy day, Trump fired Sally Yates (not that I approved!), and I went, “I know what THIS is! It’s the Saturday Night Massacre!” It was like when you’re driving around in a strange part of town, with no idea where you are, and you suddenly spot something you recognize. I knew exactly where I was, and where we were going. This wasn’t uncharted territory. This was Watergate.
I’ve felt that way ever since, and now this week, with Trump’s firing of the FBI Director for either 1) refusing to promise to be completely loyal to Trump, or 2) not shutting down the Russia investigation, and his covering up his real reason by attempting to blame it on the Justice Department, and with the sudden possibility of secret tapes of their meeting and the news that Jared Kushner and Sessions both lied about their meetings with the Russians, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re in Watergate territory.
I have to tell you up front that I was an absolute Watergate junkie. Till it erupted, I had never been particularly political, but I read everything I could find on Watergate, took out subscriptions to TIME and NEWSWEEK, devoured every bit of news, and watched every minute of the Watergate hearings.
This was before the Internet, YouTube, TIVO, or even VCRs, so if you wanted to watch something, you had to watch it then and there. Luckily, I could see the TV from the living room AND the kitchen, so I could get the vacuuming done and dinner cooked while watching and the beds made during commercial breaks. The rest of the time I ironed–that summer not only was every item of our clothing ironed, but also pillowcases, tablecloths, and napkins. Not since then again has my family ever been so neatly pressed.
As I ironed, I took notes, so I could update my husband when he got home. And sometimes I put down the iron and gawped at the screen, because what was happening was more riveting than any soap opera. Like the time someone quoted the Constitution, and Sam Erwin said, “Well, let’s just see what it says,” and pulled out his pocket Constitution. And the time he was questioning Haldeman, who said he’d do anything for the President, and Sam asked him, “Even murder?” and the look on Haldeman’s face was pure malice, and I finally understood what the phrase, “If looks could kill,” really meant.
Or the day Butterfield said, “I don’t know. It might be on the tapes,” and the entire committee leaned forward as one man and said, “Tapes?!”
There’s never been anything like it in American history. Till yesterday. When Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” And the whole country leaned forward and said, “Tapes?!”.
I know that history never repeats itself exactly. But I see a lot of things going on right now that sure do remind one of Watergate:
1. Nixon saw enemies everywhere and was determined to get revenge on all of them. He kept a secret “enemies list” of politicians and journalists he hated. Woodward and Bernstein were of course at the top, but I vividly remember the day the list was released. “I just got this list,” Daniel Schorr said, standing on the Supreme Court’s steps, and began reading out the names. “Representative John Conyers, Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, Daniel Schorr…” he read. And stopped short, stunned that his own name was on the list.
And don’t think the list was a toothless exercise. Nixon was having the people on the list audited and investigated, using the federal government to carry out revenge for his own personal grudges.
And Trump? After the healthcare debacle, he and Bannon talked about compiling “a shit list” on the Congressmen who voted against him. “He wants a running tally of (the Republicans) who want to sink this…Not sure if I’d call it an enemies list, per se, but I wouldn’t want to be on it.” His longtime aide Omarosa said during the campaign, “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” And, asked after the election about the people who didn’t support him, she elaborated, “Trump has a long memory, and we’re keeping a list.”
2. Nixon absolutely despised the press. Like Trump, he called them “the enemy” and railed constantly about them for refusing to let the Watergate story go. He sent his vice-president Spiro Agnew out to call them “nattering nabobs of negativitism” and say the newspapers were “only fit to line the bottom of bird cages.”
Here’s Trump on the same subject:
“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.”
“You’re dishonest people.”
“The news is the enemy of the American people!”
3. Nixon’s downfall wasn’t the break-in, but his attempts to cover it up and his other crimes. He lied about them and got his staff to lie, destroyed documents (including 18 1/2 minutes of tape), suborned witnesses, and tried to pin it all on scapegoats like John Dean when they were brave enough to tell the truth. To quote Paul Begala, “There are two rules in Washington. Number one: The coverup is always worse than the crime. Number two: Nobody ever remembers number one.”
Including Trump. He’s tried to distance himself from General Flynn (as Ralphie from CHRISTMAS STORY would say, “Flick? Flick who?”), he’s claimed he hardly knew his campaign manager Paul Manafort, and never even met Carter Page (who he also said was his top national security adviser and was recently discovered to still be phoning daily.) And none of his staff ever met with the Russians. Well, actually they did, but just to exchange pleasantries. Well, actually they might have discussed sanctions, they can’t remember.
Trump’s national security adviser General Flynn lied about meeting with the Russians and being paid by them, Trump’s son-in-law lied about meeting with Kislyak. It’s been reported that White House staffers are deleting their phones in advance of a possible FBI investigation, and that the FBI, CIA, and NSA were ordered by the White House to “find anything” that might back up Trump’s outrageous tweet that Obama had had him wire-tapped. And now Trump has forbidden the release of the White House visitor logs to keep people from finding out who he’s met with. And fired the FBI Director to shut down the investigation, which looks very much like a cover-up.
But it’s not just that the cover-up is worse than the crime, it’s that the cover-up attempts make it more likely you’ll be found out. When Woodward was sent to cover a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, his interest was piqued by the fact that a White House lawyer had showed up to represent the two burglars. But what really made his journalistic antennae perk up was when he asked, “Who called you?” and the lawyer said, “I’m not here.”
Likewise, when Nunes called a press conference to announce that he’d found proof that Obama did wiretap Trump, he refused to say where he’d gotten the information, which made the press curious. But what really perked up THEIR antennae was the fact that his staff said he’d been in an Uber car with them the night before, gotten a call on his smartphone, suddenly ordered the driver to stop the car, and jumped out and ran off into the night. (We’ve since found out the whole thing was cooked up by two Trump aides and that Nunes had gotten the information from the White House.)
And look at these headlines:
“Trump looks like someone with a lot to hide.”–The Chicago Tribune
“Latest leads who Trump sure acts like a guilty person.”–NJ.com
“Trump is Very Guilty, Very Stupid, or Very Much Both”–Daily Banter
4. At first Watergate looked like a bunch of isolated incidents. There was the break-in, and there were a bunch of mysteriously large checks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President and some indications that Gordon Liddy had been investigating Ted Kennedy, but none of them were connected to anything else–or to the President. It was only after many months that the connections linking them began to show up.
Ditto with Trump. We have a Russian oligarch who bought a house from Trump for a ridiculous price and whose plane (or yacht) seems to show up wherever Trump does, we have Erik Prince (who heads up Blackwater and is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) holding a secret meeting in the Seychelles, a bank in Cyprus that Trump’s commerce secretary was vice-president of and that has ties to Russian oligarchs and money laundering, and a number of meetings between the Russian ambassador and Trump officials, including an attempt by Jared Kushner to set up a secret “backchannel” in the Russian embassy, and rumors that there was a “golden showers” incident that happened when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and that might have been taped and is being used to blackmail him, but the connection between all these events has not yet come clear. Trust me, it will.
5. The underlying charge in both investigations is the same–cheating to win an election. The break-in at Democratic headquarters was only one of many crimes–C.R.E.E.P. had broken into Eagleton’s psychiatrist’s office, forced Eagleton to drop out of the race, discredited Democratic presidential campaigns, disrupted their campaigns, leaked “fake news” items to the press, and tried to get dirt on all Nixon’s opponents, all in order to win re-election for Nixon.
The possible charge against Trump is that he colluded with the Russians to rig the election in exchange for a relaxing of the sanctions against Russians and letting them have Crimea (and maybe the Ukraine.). The Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA issued a joint report saying that the highest levels of the Kremlin were involved in trying to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Trump. It’s known that Carter Page, General Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Manafort had meetings with Russian oligarchs and intelligence agents.
6, It’s a maddeningly slow process. The Watergate break-in happened in June of 1972 and Woodward and Bernstein started writing about it then. By October, the FBI had established that it stemmed from a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort,” but in November, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and he didn’t resign till August of 1974.
In between, there was a steady stream of stories about payoffs, dirty tricks, attempts to retaliate against journalists, buggings, abuses of power, denials–“I am not a crook!”, court battles, firings, obstructions of justice, and guilty pleas, each of which should have resulted in Nixon’s immediate resignation, but didn’t.
In the end, it wasn’t any one event that did Nixon in, but the steady “drip, drip, drip” of leaks and evidence coming out on an almost daily basis–and seeming to have no effect at the time.
Looking back, Nixon’s impeachment and resignation seems inevitable. But, trust me, it didn’t at the time. I remember revelation after revelation that seemed to have no effect at all, and I frequently thought, “WHAT will it take before people wake up and realized they’ve got to get rid of this guy?”
My only companion in my outrage and frustration (besides my husband) was our minister’s wife. She was from Czechoslovakia and got out on the last train in World War II before they closed the border, so she recognized all the warning signs. She and I sang in the church choir, and every week we compared notes, commiserated, and tried to convert our fellow choir members but they were a) paying no attention at all, b) thought it was much ado about nothing, or c) knew the President of the United States couldn’t possibly be involved.
The tipping point was incredibly slow in coming. There was no gradual growing awareness of the severity of the situation, no increasing number of people who agreed with us. No nothing–even after the hearings–and Olga and I began to think, “He’s going to get away with it.”
And then, bang, just like that, the tipping point came, and it all went so fast we almost missed it.
For Watergate, the tipping point was the Saturday Night Massacre, when, rather than turn the tapes over, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire the special prosecutor who’d asked for the tapes. Richardson refused. So did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Nixon fired both of them and finally got Acting Attorney General Robert Bork to do his dirty work for him. Trumpgate or Russiagate or whatever the hell this will end up being called will not go exactly the same way. As Mark Twain is said to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Here, the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of an FBI Director came at the beginning, not the end. And we have no idea what the tipping point may be.
But we do know that the firings have led to outrage and more intense investigation. And more leaks, more news stories.
Drip, drip, drip…