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Bob Woodward on Trump-Watergate comparisons: ‘Let’s see what the evidence is’

Bob Woodward on Trump-Watergate comparisons: 'Let's see what the evidence is' (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward covered the Watergate scandal as it unfolded more than 40 years ago. But despite widespread comparisons between President Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey and President Richard M. Nixon's decision to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Woodward says the media should be careful about making conclusions about Trump and his motives, saying, “Let's see what the evidence is.”

The Fix sat down with Woodward in his Washington home Wednesday to get his thoughts on Trump's decision to fire Comey, comparisons to the Saturday Night Massacre, and how the media should cover the Trump administration. Our conversation has been edited only for length and clarity.

The Fix: To start with a broad question, does the United States have a problem labeling every scandal as a "-gate?” From Deflategate in the NFL to Pizzagate in the 2016 election, it seems like we compare everything to Watergate.

Bob Woodward: Well, it's in the political culture now. It's going to be Trumpgate, it's going to be Comeygate, it's going to be FBI-gate, it's going to be something-gate.

Fix: What was your first thought when you heard the news that President Trump fired FBI Director Comey?

Woodward: My first reaction was, “Wow,” and my second reaction was, “But of course!” There's a certain logic to it. Now, Trump says it's about the email investigation. As many people have said, that doesn't seem quite plausible. That's like settling an issue that is gone — and in many ways Trump won, because he won the presidency. Comey certainly was the aggressive one, the fact gatherer. There's a story today that just recently he was asking the Justice Department for more money and resources to increase the effort in the Russian investigation, and a couple of days later he's out the door.

Fix: President Trump has repeatedly called the Russia investigation “fake news” and suggested that it's a witch hunt more than a legitimate investigation. Is it?

Woodward: It's clearly a legitimate investigation, and Trump doesn't like it. We'll see. Some people think it's a coverup already. Others think there's no evidence, and let's see. And what's worrisome to a reporter interested in getting facts is, this is so polarized, this is so emotional. This is driven by tweets and assertions from people who don't really know. It's too bad we live in this Internet culture of impatience and speed, and it does not set us on the road to gathering facts.

Fix: In that same vein, are people rushing to the Watergate comparison too quickly? Are Trump's opponents so alarmed by his presidency in general that they want to see it that way?

Woodward: Lots of people are alarmed by the Trump presidency, some people for partisan reasons; they're probably hyping this up. But this is pretty extraordinary. Don't dilute the moment when the president, kind of out of left field, says, “I'm firing the FBI director, who has a fixed term, can only be fired for cause.” Trump has decided he has cause, and I guess Comey is at home now. He's no longer at FBI headquarters. I think it's very important — I was listening to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham this morning, and he said, okay, let's take it one step at a time. We can afford to do that. I'm for that. I'm for the media, which I think now has a quadruple responsibility to work hard on this — the various investigations, the FBI, the Senate, the House, to dig in and be patient.

Fix: The central question seems to me to be, is it an abuse of power for the president to fire the FBI director who is investigating him?

Woodward: Look, the president has that power. Go to the Constitution. It's very clear. Article 2: The executive power of the United States is vested in one person, the president. Not the National Security Council, not the Cabinet, not the White House staff, one person. He can do whatever he wants, within perhaps reasonable limits, so he's got the power. You could argue he shouldn't do this, it's abusive. I don't know until we get evidence — if we ever get evidence — where this is going, and if the climate of the times is impatience, we're not going to get the evidence because to do that, you have to really launch, as you do in the media, a full-scale inquiry with lots of people working on it, trying to talk to everyone who might know something.

Fix: Some of the specific comparisons that have been made today are between Trump's decision to fire Comey and the “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal. Is that a fair comparison?

Woodward: The Saturday Night Massacre was a giant, seismic event in Watergate. But that was in October 1973, and what happened is, the attorney general then, Elliot Richardson, had been appointed by Nixon. Elliot Richardson, “Mr. Clean,” had agreed to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would appoint a special prosecutor in Watergate.

At the time of the Saturday Night Massacre, John Dean, Nixon's lawyer, had already testified — a devastating four days of nationally publicized testimony — and Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide, had disclosed the taping system, so by the time you got to the point where Nixon fired the special prosecutor, there were voluminous accusations against Nixon and there was a path to getting the evidence, getting the tapes.

Fix: So while the rumors surrounding the Trump investigation are pretty vague, the accusations were very specific in this situation.

Woodward: It's so important to understand what John Dean was saying: specifics, dozens of calls, meetings saying the president orchestrated and was the leader of an illegal obstruction of justice. Dean testified to his own motive, which he said was corrupt, and that the president was corrupt. So you had a firsthand witness, and in the Trump case, there's a lot of suspicion — genuine, well-founded suspicion, but no John Dean testifying with the kind of specifics, “On March 21 we met and I said we need maybe a million dollars to pay the Watergate burglars for their silence,” and Nixon says, “Well, I know where we can get a million dollars.” Nothing like that. Nothing comparable. Maybe there will be at some point. No comparable evidence trail, where there were suggestions of a secret taping system or suggestions of absolutely foolproof evidence.

So you get to the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon's not firing the FBI director, he's firing the boss, the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. There was such a firestorm, dozens, as I recall, of resolutions introduced in the House of Representatives to introduce an impeachment investigation, so what did Nixon do? He blinked. He said, okay, we'll have a new special prosecutor — it turned out to be Leon Jaworski, and the second thing — at that moment, there was an order from a federal court of appeals saying he had to turn over a group of tapes, and he said, “Okay, I'll do it.” And so he turned over evidence that turned out in itself to be quite incriminating to him. So you have a very different situation.