If there is one lesson that Washington learned from Watergate, it is that “the coverup is worse than the crime.” There is still no evidence that Richard Nixon ordered the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. It was his attempts to obstruct the investigation that brought him down. That lesson was reinforced in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton was impeached not because of any financial improprieties involving the Whitewater Development Corp., or even his sexual transgressions, but because he lied about his trysts with Monica Lewinsky under oath.
Yet President Trump is either oblivious to, or simply disdainful of, what for good reason has become conventional wisdom in politics. No president has attempted more coverups — and with less success.
Trump’s most continuous and most failed coverup is of the incompetence and backbiting in his own administration. “We have a lot of love in the administration. The White House is truly, as you would say, a well-oiled machine. It is working so well,” he insists, even as the administration lurches from one disaster to another, and his aides stab each other, and him, in the back with anonymous quotes — and even, in one notable instance, an anonymous op-ed. Now the chaos is rising again with the expected departure of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
This week, another coverup blew up in the president’s face when CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed senators on the mountain of evidence implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) emerged to say, “If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” while Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R., S.C.), a master of the one-liner, said there was a “smoking saw.”
This was a reference to the lame line from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who kept claiming he had not seen any “smoking gun” to link the crown prince to the crime. Mattis was just telling Trump what he wanted to hear. The president has been saying that maybe the crown prince knew about Khashoggi’s murder and “maybe he didn’t” — “we may never know all of the facts.”
Trump’s evasions and lies have now predictably backfired by enraging senators and spurring them not only to hold the crown prince responsible but also to cut off support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Trump is likely to do more damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship than if he had simply told the truth from the beginning and argued for the kind of measured response that President George H.W. Bush made after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Bush didn’t say, “Maybe Deng Xiaoping ordered the crackdown — and maybe he didn’t.”
But no coverup will do as much damage to the Trump presidency as the one involving the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 investigation. Admittedly, in this instance, the coverup may not be worse than the crime — if the crime in question is conspiracy against the United States in collusion with a hostile foreign power. But Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia probe are nevertheless backfiring and actually making matters worse for him. Indeed, a special counsel would never have been appointed in the first place were it not for Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey to stop the probe of the “Russia thing.”
Last month Trump fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general and appointed a political hack as acting attorney general because Sessions would not block special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe on his behalf. But Matthew G. Whitaker has so far not done anything more than Sessions did to rein in Mueller — witness the guilty plea last week from former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who admitted to lying to Congress about Trump’s pursuit of a Moscow real estate deal even as he was securing the Republican presidential nomination. Earlier, Cohen implicated Trump in the commission of two federal crimes by pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws at his client’s direction to cover up his affairs with a porn star and a Playboy playmate.
Now Trump has taken obstruction of justice to a whole new level by praising his old friend Roger Stone for refusing to testify against him, dangling a pardon before his former campaign chairman (and now convicted felon) Paul Manafort, and urging a judge to give Cohen (another felon) a maximum sentence because he cooperated with prosecutors. No less than George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, has suggested that Trump just violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 1503, 1512, which covers the crime of witness tampering.
It has always been questionable whether Mueller could prove that Trump knowingly cooperated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. That kind of evidence would probably require a high-level witness — and with Manafort refusing to cooperate, that is looking harder to get. But Trump is serving up obstruction of justice on a silver platter. This administration can’t do anything right; even its coverups are incompetent. That is, of course, its saving grace. Trump would be far more dangerous if he were more adept at concealing evidence of his misdeeds.