Watergate is having a moment. The presidential scandal that inspired a thousand -gates is a go-to point of reference for political observers in 2018, a function of a scandal-plagued White House and an outside investigator who’s going over the books. Don’t take our word for it. Mentions of Watergate are up on cable news and searches for the scandal have been higher over the past 12 months than at any point in a decade.
The biggest spikes came in May and June 2017 after President Trump fired former FBI director James B. Comey.
Trump himself is not immune to the comparisons. On Sunday, he made a reference to John Dean, the former White House counsel under Richard Nixon who has been a constant critic of Trump. After a report from the New York Times over the weekend indicated that the current counsel, Donald McGahn, had offered extensive testimony to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump tried to put it in context.
Dean decided that he would cooperate with investigations into Nixon after realizing that Nixon was hoping to position him as the fall guy for his decisions. McGahn, the Times reported, was worried that Trump would do the same thing. Here Trump argues that, no, McGahn wasn’t being disloyal to him but instead doing exactly what Trump wanted.
It was a rare moment when Trump compared the investigation into his administration in the same light as his critics. It’s not unusual for him to compare the moment to Watergate, but it’s usually his opponents who are the wrongdoers in his narratives. Trump, like many Americans, appears to have distilled “Watergate” down to “someone in politics did bad that permeated politics.”
In June, he quoted an ally who argued that the genesis of the investigation into him was “a level of criminality beyond the pale. This is such a grave abuse of power and authority, it’s like nothing else we’ve seen in our history. This makes the Nixon Watergate burglary look like keystone cop stuff.”
In May, reports that the FBI had paid money to an informant who spoke with three Trump campaign staffers was “bigger than Watergate,” a scale that Trump has deployed before. In March, Trump declared that the investigation into his campaign that began in July 2016 was “bigger than Watergate” because it began “with zero proof of wrongdoing.” (It is generally the nature of investigations that they seek to find proof of guilt or innocence and not that they have that information at the outset.)
During his first year in office, the Watergate-esque issues were more diverse. There was his assertion to reporters that a long-debunked business deal involving the sale of uranium to Russia was “Watergate, modern age.” And, most famously, his claim that President Barack Obama had personally ordered that phone lines at Trump Tower be tapped.
Anything which reflects on him negatively from a political standpoint is a Watergate, the worst sort of political scandal.
Before the election, though, it was different: Anything that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, did was itself Watergate or worse than Watergate.
After Comey announced that new emails had been found from Clinton’s email server, Trump repeatedly called the email server situation the “biggest scandal since Watergate.” In October 2016, before the Comey announcement he gave a speech in which he summarized how the server was worse than the Nixon scandal: “Hillary Clinton put her emails on an illegal secret server open to foreign hacking. Then she bleached and destroyed 33,000 emails — after a congressional subpoena. She lied to Congress, under oath, and her staffers took the Fifth Amendment and got immunity deals. It’s worse than Watergate.”
In the middle of that month, there was a report that a State Department official had unsuccessfully asked that one of the emails that traveled over Clinton’s server be declassified. This, Trump said, was “a bigger event than Watergate.”
Even before he jumped into the presidential race, Trump was spotting Watergates. There was the investigation into former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio, which “could dwarf Watergate,” according to an article Trump tweeted in July 2012. Five years later, Trump would pardon Arpaio for charges stemming from that investigation.
Astute observers of the graph at the top of this article will notice that the number of mentions on Fox News in May 2017 — when Comey was fired — only narrowly topped the number in May 2013, when the network’s hosts and guests regularly compared the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and questions about the IRS to Watergate. That month, Trump made a similar case: The moment was the most remarkable one since Watergate.
Little did he know.