The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flynngate? Kremlingate? Russiagate? The gate’s out of the gate.

The Kremlin. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Is it gate-worthy? If so, is it bigger than Watergate or smaller? Of course, it’s too soon to tell.

But that didn’t stop Donald Trump from declaring the Hillary Clinton email controversy “bigger than Watergate.”

And Rep. Steve King, Republican of Iowa, thought Benghazi was not only bigger than Watergate but 10 times bigger than Watergate.

While it would be nice to avoid the “-gate construction,” as the great scholar of political lexicology William Safire put it, Watergate remains the yardstick for any scandal, potential scandal or anything a partisan wants to be perceived as a scandal.

As Safire put it in his Political Dictionary, “gate” is merely a “device to provide a sinister label” to something.

But it’s too late to avoid gates. The gate is already out of the gate.

Former CBS anchor and reporter Dan Rather, who covered Watergate, made waves across social media Tuesday with a Facebook post on the subject:

Watergate is the biggest scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now. On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9. This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.”
When we look back at Watergate, we remember the end of the Nixon presidency. It came with an avalanche, but for most of the time my fellow reporters and I were chasing down the story as it rumbled along with a low-grade intensity. We never were quite sure how much we would find out about what really happened. In the end, the truth emerged into the light, and President Nixon descended into infamy.
This Russia story started out with an avalanche and where we go from here no one really knows. Each piece of news demands new questions. We are still less than a month into the Trump presidency, and many are asking that question made famous by Tennessee senator Howard Baker those many years ago: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC suggested Tuesday night that it might be bigger than Watergate, bigger than anything.

“The allegations here about national security risks and the undermining of the U.S. government by a foreign power, these are as serious as anything that has ever been alleged against any president not just in modern times, but ever.”

While news organizations had variously called it the “Michael Flynn scandal” and “Russia scandal,” Flynn’s resignation opened the floodgate, with “Kremlingate” leading the pack, notwithstanding the fact that the Kremlin already has a gate.

“Kremlingate: What did President Trump know and when did he know it?” said the op-ed headline in the Los Angeles Times by Max Boot, invoking the Watergate question posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.)

“Is Michael Flynn the First Domino to Fall in Kremlingate?” asked Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum opted for “Flynngate.”

But, wrote David Freddoso in the Washington Examiner, “‘Flynngate’ is no Watergate, but it’s exactly the sort of thing Congress should investigate.”

The reason for Flynn’s firing is the fact that he lied, not the fact that he violated the (drumroll, please!) Logan Act, which forbids freelance diplomacy. Not only is this law never enforced, but the “crime” of an incoming administration discussing policy with the Russian ambassador three weeks prematurely is just not really that interesting. Trump won the election, as regrettable as that may be with respect to America’s policy toward Putin. Just like Obama, he has every right to make that policy now — probably too much power — and it would not be a major scandal if one of his aides had started laying the groundwork around Christmas.
What is a major scandal is that Flynn is not only a demonstrated kook on social media, but also a liar. He told Mike Pence a self-serving lie, which the new vice president then repeated on national television. If Trump knew that Flynn had lied to him and was willing to keep him anyway, then it doesn’t reflect that well on Trump. But then we’re not talking about a second Watergate, we’re talking about Trump surrounding himself with liars.

He lamented that Congress was unlikely to follow it up, “even though it should” because “Republican Congresses tend to cover for Republican administrations and Democrats for Democratic administrations.”

As if to confirm that observation, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, observed that the real problem was “that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.” He said he expected “the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer.”

The comment echoed President Trump’s tweet, before Flynn’s resignation, that “the real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?”

To which he added Wednesday morning:

It’s worth noting here that the cluster of crimes now called Watergate began not with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee (there was no such thing as “hacking” then) but with the greatest leak in U.S. history up until that time: That of the Pentagon Papers to The Washington Post and the New York Times in June, 1971, which produced a frenzied search for leakers by the Nixon White House, which in turn produced in July 1971 a unit called “the plumbers,” some of whom, among other things, broke into the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972.

So perhaps someone is advising Trump not to launch a leak investigation. Or to shove press secretary Sean Spicer in public as Richard Nixon shoved his press secretary, Ron Ziegler.

Or to dismiss the Russian hacking of the DNC as “third rate.”

To some extent, the Watergate analogy, historically, is one that’s provoked as much by one’s partisan stance as anything else. What’s a “gate” to Republicans is often a “political assassination” to Democrats and vice-versa.

And Watergate is now a script, with lines such as “what did the president know and when did he know it,” as much as it is history.

As history, it remains unrivaled despite all the invocations of its name.

As Post fact-checker Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote on the occasion of Trump’s claim about Clinton’s email controversy, it takes a lot to make a Watergate, which resulted in the impeachment and resignation of President Nixon and 69 people charged with crimes, of whom 48 pleaded guilty.

So far, no one has been charged with a crime in connection with the Flynn affair.

But that never deters Watergate comparisons, which, in the wake of Flynn’s resignation, are now in full cry.