“This is bigger than Watergate. This is bigger than Watergate. In my opinion. This is bigger than Watergate.”
— Donald Trump, campaign rally, Oct. 28
Trump has claimed that the Hillary Clinton email controversy is the biggest political scandal “since” Watergate, but now he flatly says it is “bigger” than Watergate. His campaign is now using this line:
There are a lot of unknowns about the Clinton investigation (see our Q&A here) right now, but we know a lot about the Watergate scandal. And the basic facts of both cases right now just don’t compare. Let’s take a look.
FBI Director James B. Comey announced Friday that new emails had been found that might be relevant to the Hillary Clinton investigation. He wrote a cryptic letter to Congress that contained few details.
Law enforcement sources have told reporters that the emails were found on a computer that belonged to former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, who had been Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department. The emails surfaced during an underage sexting investigation into Weiner.
There is not enough information right now to know whether the new emails will lead to any other developments. It does not appear as if the FBI has yet examined them in depth, and Comey had said in the letter that the FBI “cannot yet assess whether the material may or may not be significant” or whether the emails contained classified information.
We don’t know if they were addressed to and from Clinton, or if they are emails that the FBI already had reviewed in the earlier investigation into her use of a private server.
No charges ever have been filed in the Clinton email case; Comey has said the FBI could not find evidence of “clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information.” There is no way to know whether the new emails would change that. (For more, see all of our fact-checks on the Clinton email issue.)
On the other hand, we know a lot about the Watergate scandal from the 1970s, thanks to the dogged, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The scandal began with a burglary of the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate complex and led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, and the criminal convictions and guilty pleas of dozens of people involved in the massive campaign of sabotage and espionage on behalf of Nixon’s reelection effort and the ensuing coverup.
The key here is that there were clear violations of law that led to criminal convictions of aides and co-conspirators. In total, 69 people were charged with crimes, and 48 people pleaded guilty.
Here’s a list of some of the major figures who were implicated in the Watergate scandal, including the 1972 burglary and the following coverup. All were found guilty except for Nixon, who was pardoned.
- President Richard M. Nixon (Nixon resigned in disgrace while facing impeachment. A Watergate grand jury named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. One month after being sworn in as president, Gerald Ford granted a “full, free and absolute pardon” for all crimes that Nixon “committed or may have committed” when he was in the White House.)
- John N. Mitchell, former attorney general and Nixon reelection campaign manager
- H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff
- John Ehrlichman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs
- Charles W. Colson, White House counsel
- John Dean, White House counsel
- Kenneth Wells Parkinson, Nixon reelection committee
- Gordon Creighton Strachan, White House aide
- Fred C. LaRue, Nixon reelection committee
- Jeb S. Magruder, Nixon reelection committee
- Robert C. Mardian, Nixon reelection committee attorney (Mardian’s conviction of conspiracy to obstruct justice was overturned on appeal.)
- Bernard L. Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr., Frank Sturgis; the burglars of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters
- G. Gordon Liddy, Nixon aide
- E. Howard Hunt, Jr., CIA agent and former White House aide
In response to Trump’s comments, Bernstein (who authored a biography of Hillary Clinton) tweeted that there is “no way” the Clinton emails are “bigger than Watergate” or close to it:
Nick Akerman, one of the prosecutors in the Watergate case, rejected Trump’s statement that the emails case is “bigger than Watergate,” according to mic.com political reporter Celeste Katz: “Donald Trump’s statement that this is bigger than Watergate is totally absurd. There is no evidence of any violation of law. For Trump to reach that conclusion based on a total lack of evidence is reminiscent of the innuendo spread by Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.”
[Update: John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel implicated in the Watergate scandal, rejected Trump’s description in an op-ed in the New York Times. “Whatever mistakes Mrs. Clinton made, her actions bear no similarities whatsoever to Nixon’s criminalization of his presidency, and his efforts to corrupt much of the executive branch," he wrote.]
The Trump campaign did not provide evidence of how the Clinton emails are “bigger than Watergate,” but issued this statement in response to our inquiry: “Hillary Clinton is one of the most corrupt candidates ever to run for president and she has enlisted the biased media to act as her campaign’s propaganda arm. Americans know that Clinton’s email scandal disqualifies her for the presidency and her candidacy will go down as one of the most unethical moments in political history.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump says the Clinton email scandal is “bigger than Watergate,” given Comey’s letter to Congress about new emails that might be relevant to the Clinton email scandal. But there is not enough information available right now to know whether these emails will make a difference in the case. Comey’s letter said the FBI “cannot yet assess whether the material may or may not be significant.”
So far, there have been no criminal charges, and therefore no convictions or guilty pleas in the Clinton email scandal. That makes the Clinton emails fundamentally different from Watergate, where 48 people were found guilty. Trump earns Four more Pinocchios for this absurd comparison.
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