The 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary coincides with the ongoing House hearings on the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Secrets from both affairs remain.
WASHINGTON – The wreckage of Watergate and January 6th are separated by half a century, yet are rooted in the same age-old desire for power at any cost.
Two cunning and profane presidents tried to put an end to democracy.
Mysteries from both matters remain as the House investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 riot in the Capitol overlaps with Watergate’s 50th anniversary this week.
Is there a hitting gun in Donald Trump’s deceptions? Or did we already see it when he called out angry supporters to a “wild” time in Washington, telling them to “fight like hell” and musing that maybe his vice president – one of the few “no” people in his docile cabal – should be hanged as the insurgents demanded?
Trump had lost the election and was trying to hold on to power. But Nixons? A key question might be why he even bothered to defect.
Nixon was well on his way to re-election when 50 years ago on Friday, clumsy burglars linked to his campaign committee broke into the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate office building and were caught.
Chapter-by-chapter exposure of his cover-up and efforts to obstruct justice drove him out of office almost two years later, when he resigned rather than face a likely conviction in an impeachment trial. Three Republican leaders from Congress went to the White House and helped convince him that he was doomed.
By contrast, Trump was despondent after convincingly losing the 2020 election as he dispatched his own bunglers — lawyers, aides, followers — as well as the violent mob in the Capitol to reverse the results and keep him in office. Few in his party publicly urged him to accept defeat.
Watergate is the American presidential scandal against which all others are judged. It overthrew a president. But January 6th was the one that shed blood.
Watergate had a powerful afterburner that resulted in Republicans being thrown out of Congress by the dozens in 1974. This time there is almost unanimity that the party will win.
Michael Dobbs, author of 2021’s “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate – An American Tragedy,” said the system worked in Watergate because Congress, the courts, and the press did their jobs by protecting a chain of criminals Established activities that led to Nixon’s resignation.
“The system was under stress then,” he said, “but is under much greater stress now.”
As the Senate Watergate Committee conducted its landmark hearings beginning in May 1973, inflation was heading towards 9% by the end of the year, about where it is today. The stock market plummeted. Then as now, people had urgent distractions.
But Americans were captivated by the spectacle of a president slowly falling out of favor. More than 70%, in a Gallup poll, said they followed the televised hearings, which spanned nearly three months this summer.
The previous hearings on January 6 have been less about the investigators discovering new facts than about showing and telling what they have already discovered in months of methodical work.
For Dobbs, evidence of Trump’s direct involvement in planning or instigating an insurrection with intent to overthrow the election would be Nixonian evidence.
The challenge to the Jan. 6 investigation and any potential prosecution is “the ambiguous nature of Trump’s statements from a legal standpoint,” he said. “‘Fight like hell’ can be interpreted in different ways.”
By releasing previously recorded testimony from close Trump associates, the panel has revealed the extent to which Trump’s circle knew his stolen election case was a farce. Not even his daughter Ivanka Trump bought it from him.
Trump’s Attorney General William Barr testified that the president’s arguments were “detached from reality” if he really believed them.
Harsh words, but with what effect?
Trump’s election denial runs through the campaigns of far-right Republicans in the 2022 mid-election season, some of whom won their primaries. The hearings will by no means be the last word on Trump’s lies.
“Trump has no constitutional capacity to let criticism through,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “So expect a rising tide of allegations, an ever-growing list of enemies, and a retaliation program stretching into the future.
“Other Republican leaders will ponder the damage this might do to the party,” he added, “but there’s no Howard Baker on the horizon just yet.”
Baker embodied the politics of the time in Congress, partisan but not venomous. He was Rep. Liz Cheney of the day, but rising up the Republican Party, not an outcast like the vulnerable Wyoming congresswoman who fiercely despises Trump and other Republicans who don’t get in his way.
Baker first expressed his instinctive loyalty to Nixon – “I’m your friend,” he recalled telling him face-to-face at the beginning of the hearings. But as the top Republican on the Watergate panel, he listened, asked questions, immersed himself in the hundreds of hours of hearings, and saw the corruption.
His famous question — “What did the President know and when did he know it?” — was actually passed off as the President’s tentative defense because Baker expected the answer wouldn’t be much.
“I believed it was a political ploy by the Democrats that it would go nowhere,” Baker told The Associated Press in 1992. “But a few weeks later, I realized there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I cared about.”
The persistence and seriousness of his questioning made the mild-mannered Tennessee Senator an unlikely heartthrob. Love letters poured into his office. A women’s magazine called him “studly”.
The Watergate Committee of four Democrats and three Republicans was formed by a unanimous vote in the Senate, which is unheard of today on almost any substantive issue. It was accused of investigating the Watergate affair and “any other illegal, improper or unethical conduct” in the 1972 election campaign.
In contrast, the January 6 House Committee was formed by a vote of 222 to 190. The only two Republicans who voted for the committee, Cheney and outgoing Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, were elected to the committee.
Where Trump loudly announced his grievances and provocations, Nixon sounded private, or what he considered private. It was the White House tape system that Nixon installed for posterity that damned him when the Supreme Court forced him to release the tapes.
In a conversation on June 23, 1972, six days after the burglary, Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, is heard recommending that Nixon tell the FBI to drop its investigation into the burglary before the FBI can track the crime to the White House or Nixon himself.
“There’s something here that we don’t want you to continue doing,” Haldeman suggested telling the FBI chief.
“Mm-hmm,” Nixon said. “Mm-hmm.”
“Okay, good,” Nixon concluded. “Play it hard. That’s how they play it, and that’s how we’re going to play it.”
That was the smoking gun, a bullet thrown for the purpose of obstruction of justice.
A day after the break-in, AP reported that one of the burglars was a hired security agent from the Nixon campaign, the first tentative connection to the president and one that caught police and prosecutors by surprise.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein later corroborated the report for the Washington Post before blasting everyone else with their blockbuster Watergate exclusives and pinning the cover-up squarely on the President.
The heroes of Watergate, Bernstein now says, were not primarily the journalists who exposed Nixon’s misdeeds or the Democrats who led the prosecution, but “Republicans who had the courage to say that this was not about… ideology, but about illegality”.
All these years later, it is unknown who ordered the burglary. There is no evidence that Nixon did this directly, although there is no ambiguity about the fact that he conducted a cover-up and otherwise played dirty.
Nixon created the “paranoid culture” that created Watergate, Dobbs said. “The conspiracy took on a life of its own, driven by mad operators like Gordon Liddy who anticipated the President’s wishes.”
Fifty years from now, what will Americans say about January 6th?
Commenting on the hearings on Twitter, historian Michael Beschloss said the answer would depend on whether America was a democracy or an autocracy by then. “In the latter case, the nation’s authoritarian leaders could celebrate January 6 as one of the great days in US history,” as Trump now described it.
He also asked a question that can never be definitively answered.
“What would have become of our country if the January 6 coup had been successful?”
https://www.king5.com/article/news/nation-world/watergate-50th-meets-january-6/507-84b8c501-1d31-4b33-b07d-961514d3ba6d Watergate 50th anniversary intersects Jan. 6 hearings