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Trump’s latest Watergate comparison: ‘That was 18 minutes; this is five months’

President Trump on Jan. 24 suggested that he could be investigated for obstruction of justice for his decision to “fight back” against the Russia probe. (Video: David Nakamura/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump loves Watergate comparisons.

“This is Nixon/Watergate,” he tweeted in March, while falsely accusing President Barack Obama of tapping the phone lines at Trump Tower.

Trump has declared that “Benghazi is bigger than Watergate” and said the Obama-era sale of uranium mining interests to Russia is “Watergate, modern-age.”

Now, the president has a new Watergate comparison, which he dropped on reporters during an impromptu question-and-answer session Wednesday at the White House. Speaking about a batch of missing (but since recovered) FBI text messages, which have become part of a conspiracy theory about a plot to sabotage Trump, the president said: “When you look at five months, this is the late, great Rose Mary Woods, right? . . . That was 18 minutes; this is five months.”

Your guide to the anti-FBI conspiracy theories rippling through conservative media

Woods was Richard Nixon's secretary, best remembered for deleting about 18 minutes of a recorded conversation between the president and his chief of staff that might have revealed Nixon's level of knowledge about the infamous break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972.

Five months is a lot longer than 18 minutes — about 12,000 times longer, as a matter of fact. Therefore, Trump seemed to argue, Textgate is worse than Watergate.

Perhaps Trump came up with the Woods reference on his own. Or maybe he watched Sean Hannity on Monday night.

“Our 18 minutes of missing tape has shown up in this case. This is like Watergate, and far worse,” Hannity told viewers. “Remember the 18-1/2-minute gap in the White House tapes? This reeks of lawbreaking, it reeks of conspiracy, and it reeks of obstruction of justice. And, by the way, the coverup is always worse than the crime.”

Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin made the same case Monday. “This is worse than the 18-minute gap that they used to mock Richard Nixon about and his secretary, Rose Mary whatever-her-name-was,” Levin said.

Richard Manning, president of the conservative group Americans for Limited Government, wrote an opinion piece for Monday that began like this:

Richard Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods erased 18 minutes of tape recording of the president and became infamous in 1972. The FBI failed to preserve five months of text messages and expects the American public to believe it was a random mistake.
This is worse than Watergate.

Is the comparison apt? Well, Woods's explanation for the deletion was a stretch, in the literal sense. The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan recounted Woods's story in the former secretary's 2005 obituary:

Miss Woods, the president's private secretary, in 1973 was transcribing secretly recorded audiotapes of Oval Office conversations. She was working on a June 20, 1972, tape of a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that might have shed light on whether Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in three days earlier. While she was performing her duties, she said, the phone rang. As she reached for it, she said she inadvertently struck the erase key on the tape recorder and kept her foot on the machine's pedal, forwarding the tape.
A photograph taken of Miss Woods re-creating the event, nearly sprawling to do both simultaneously, made her gesture look like a gymnastic feat. Some wags, according to a Washington Post article at the time, dubbed it “the Rose Mary Stretch.”

Trump's media boosters contended that the FBI's explanation for losing text messages — the agency faulted a technical glitch — is as hard to believe as Woods's claim was.

But the messages in question — between senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page and senior counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok — were not the only ones missing. The FBI failed to save messages on thousands of mobile phones, lending credence to the agency's claim that there was a technical problem, not an attempt to hide two people's records. And it was the Justice Department's own inspector general who said Thursday that messages between Strzok and Page had been recovered.

The deleted portion of the Nixon tape was never recovered; technology probably played a factor in that. But, if for no other reason, the temporarily missing text messages just don't compare.