As the Russia scandal swirls around the White House, it’s easy to make facile comparisons to Watergate, the worst presidential scandal in American history. The Russia scandal is not Watergate, at least not yet. But it’s getting closer all the time, in ways that are becoming impossible to deny.
Today the Senate Intelligence Committee released the prepared testimony that former FBI director James B. Comey will deliver tomorrow. While there will no doubt be plenty of interesting things that emerge when Comey answers specific questions from the committee, he relates that President Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
This is an utterly inappropriate thing to say to a law enforcement official whose job is to be independent of political considerations and the president’s personal wishes. Far more disturbingly, Comey says Trump asked him to put aside the ongoing FBI investigation into the Russia ties of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had just resigned.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey quotes Trump saying. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Also today, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and were asked repeatedly about an extraordinary scoop in today’s Post. The story, which quoted anonymous officials, revealed that Coats “told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene” with Comey to get the FBI “to back off its focus” on Flynn. It happened at the end of a meeting with a larger group of officials, at the end of which Trump told everyone except Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo to leave, then complained to them about the Flynn investigation and asked them to intervene.
Naturally, Democrats were interested to find out their side of the story. But under repeated questioning, Coats and Rogers both said that in a public hearing they would not discuss conversations they’ve had with the president. Rogers said that “I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate,” and, “to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall feeling ever pressured to do so.”
But Coats chose his words very carefully. He avoided saying he hadn’t been asked to intervene in the FBI investigation. Interestingly enough, it was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who homed in on the difference between “feeling pressured” and being asked, but neither Rogers nor Coats would say what Trump asked them to do, if anything.
Maine Sen. Angus King (I) was particularly perturbed by this refusal to answer. King noted that the White House was not invoking executive privilege and that their conversations with the president aren’t necessarily classified. “Why are you not answering our questions?” King asked. When Rogers replied, “Because I feel it is inappropriate,” King shot back, “What you feel isn’t relevant, Admiral.”
But he still didn’t get an answer, so the question remains. Unless and until Coats, Rogers and Pompeo say under oath that Trump never made that request, people are going to keep asking about this.
Some Republicans used to say that every micro-controversy of the Obama years was “worse than Watergate!” Apart from simply being absurd, this also served to minimize the magnitude of Watergate, which involved a panoply of crimes committed by a collection of high-ranking officials, many of whom went to prison for their involvement. So while we’re some distance away from the Russia scandal being as bad as Watergate, we also can’t ignore the parallels. In particular — and this can’t be emphasized enough — it now appears Trump may have attempted to employ intelligence officials and agencies in an effort to quash a criminal investigation of members of his campaign being conducted by the FBI. This is very close to the thing for which Richard Nixon was about to be impeached when he resigned.
We learned last month that Trump asked Coats and Rogers to publicly deny that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, essentially enlisting them in a political effort to defuse the growing scandal. Quite properly, they refused. But what The Post reports today is much more serious and dramatic, taking it from the realm of the inappropriate to the realm of the potentially criminal. While obstruction of justice is often vaguely defined, if it were proved that Trump tried to get Coats and Rogers to snuff out the FBI investigation, that might well qualify.
This act of enlisting intelligence officials to pressure the FBI to shut down its investigation is in addition to Trump’s own apparent efforts to pressure Comey to back off the Flynn probe. Comey’s new testimony today claims on the record that Trump urged him to stop investigating Flynn. According to another new report in the New York Times, Comey was disturbed enough by Trump’s request that the next day he implored Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shield the bureau from Trump’s improper influence, saying that he didn’t want to be left alone with Trump again.
Let’s return to Watergate. Recall what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, in which President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussed the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in. Haldeman explains how the CIA could be used to quash the FBI’s investigation and make the whole thing go away:
Haldeman: That the way to handle this now is for us to have [deputy CIA director Vernon] Walters call [acting FBI director] Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development,…
Nixon: Um huh.
Haldeman: …and, uh, that would take care of it.
Nixon: What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?
Haldeman: Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have, he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call Mark Felt in, and the two of them … and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because…
Haldeman: … he’s ambitious…
Haldeman: Ah, he’ll call him in and say, “We’ve got the signal from across the river to, to put the hold on this.” And that will fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is CIA.
When this tape came to light, Nixon’s fate was sealed. The House voted to instruct the Judiciary Committee to consider articles of impeachment. That committee did so, passing a resolution that cited Nixon for “interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees,” in part by “endeavouring to misuse the Central Intelligence Agency.” After the committee passed the resolution it was clear that the whole House would vote to impeach Nixon, and that the Senate would convict him. Before that could happen, Nixon resigned.
Just to be clear, I doubt that Donald Trump is going to be impeached, not so long as Republicans control the House. To paraphrase the president himself, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose his fundamental support from Republican officeholders. Their fate is tied to his, and they will do what they can to shield him from political harm. But this scandal is feeling awfully familiar, and they may be powerless to stop it from reaching the heights to which it seems to be heading.